Re-living a 1961 Civil Rights Sit-In and Becoming Friends with One of the Friendship Nine

Where were you in 1961? In 1961 I was going on 7 years old and living a peaceful and happy life in New Jersey. I did, however, grow-up hearing stories of the Civil Rights Movement and some history making things that took place in the early 60’s.

I grew up with a deep understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and the men and women that were an important part of the movement.

the story of the famous sit-in: 

The Friendship Nine, or Rock Hill Nine, was a group of African-American young men who went to jail after staging a sit-in at a segregated McCrory’s lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina in 1961.

The group gained nationwide attention because they followed the 1960 Nashville sit-in strategy of “Jail, No Bail”, which lessened the huge financial burden civil rights groups were facing as the sit-in movement spread across the South.

They became known as the Friendship Nine because eight of the nine men were students at Rock Hill’s Friendship Junior College.

On Jan. 31, 1961, students from Friendship Junior College and others picketed McCrory’s on Main Street in Rock Hill, SC to protest the segregated lunch counters at the business.

They walked in, took seats at the counter and ordered hamburgers, soft drinks and coffee. The students were refused service and ordered to leave. When they didn’t, they were arrested.

Photo Credit Charlotte Observer

The next day, 10 were convicted of trespassing and breach of the peace and sentenced to serve 30 days in jail or pay a $100 fine. One man paid the fine, but the remaining nine — eight of whom were Friendship students —chose to take the sentence of 30 days hard labor at the York County Prison Farm.

Photo Credit Charlotte Observer

Their choosing jail over a fine or bail marked a first in the Civil Rights Movement since the 1960 Nashville sit-ins, and it sparked the “jail, no bail” strategy that came to be emulated in other places.

In 2007 the city of Rock Hill unveiled an historic marker honoring the Friendship Nine at a reception honoring the men. At that time, eight of the Friendship Nine were living.

  • Robert McCullough (died on August 7, 2006)
  • John Gaines
  • Thomas Gaither (at the time, he was a field secretary with the Congress of Racial Equality and was the only one of the nine who was not a Friendship student)
  • Clarence Graham (died on March 25, 2016)
  • Willie Thomas [W.T. “Dub”] Massey
  • Willie McCleod
  • James Wells (died on July 7, 2018)
  • David Williamson Jr.
  • Mack Workman

In 2015, Judge John C. Hayes III of Rock Hill overturned the convictions of the nine, stating:

“We cannot rewrite history, but we can

right history.”

Photo Credit CNN.com

Prosecutor Kevin Brackett apologized to the eight men still living, who were in court. The men were represented at the hearing by Ernest A. Finney, Jr., the same lawyer who had defended them originally, who subsequently went on to become the first African-American Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court since Reconstruction.

Fast Forward Almost 60 Years

February 23, 2019, as part of a media tour of the South Carolina upstate, I had breakfast with David Williamson, Jr.

Before breakfast was over, I shed a few tears. Why? Because of the man I was sitting with. A humble man. So humble, in fact, that his children never knew of his involvement in 1961 until his daughter went to college at Winthrop University and saw an article about the Friendship Nine and his name was there.

He sat at that same lunch counter, on a stool with a little metal plaque with his name on it. The McCrory’s 5 and 10 is long gone and the lunch counter just recently closed. It sits frozen in time with little metal plaques on each stool telling us who sat where on that day so long ago.

A man, now in his 70’s, who played such a huge role for civil rights in our country but yet takes no credit for the role he played.

After being released from the “work farm” he went home and went back to school. His family never spoke of what he did and what he was such a huge part of.

After finishing school he moved with his high school sweetheart to New Jersey. I asked him why he chose to move rather than stay in his home town. His answer – he needed to make money to support his family and he could do that much better in New Jersey. In Rock Hill he was known as a “jail bird.”

He stayed in New Jersey for many years and worked various jobs from shining shoes to cleaning tables to finally where he ended up – a banker.

He is spending the last years of his life in his home town. A town that in 1961 didn’t allow him to sit at a lunch counter without going to jail. He happily greets people that want to say hello. A town that has gone from sending him to jail for refusing to leave after being denied a hamburger to now thinking of him as a hero. He holds no ill-will.

He is a funny man. You can sit for hours and listen to his stories of that day in 1961, about his 30 days in jail. He insists there was no major plan except that they must be non-violent.

Thrown in the middle of his funny stories are statements that make you look at him with huge amounts of respect. Simple statements he makes almost as an aside. When one journalist asked about the girls in the group his quiet answer was “we couldn’t let them go to jail – we didn’t know what would happen to them in the jails – they had to be protected.”

Would he do it again? That’s a difficult question for him to answer because he would say both yes and no. Yes because he did it to try to help bring about change. For that reason he would do it again. He doesn’t like recognition and attention. He doesn’t like being in the limelight so he definitely wouldn’t want to do it again and bring any attention to himself.

I asked his thoughts on the current climate in our country regarding race. He stopped to think before answering and sadly and quietly said – “unfortunately, history is repeating itself as it often does.” He does, however, believe that we shall once again get on the right track when it comes to racial unity.

The Friendship Nine remained friends throughout the years. Always kept in touch and knew what was happening in each other’s lives. They shared a bond that could never be broken.

 

There is a children’s book written about the Friendship Nine that everyone should read and share with their children. It’s an important part of the Civil Rights Movement that should not be forgotten.

Many of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement will never be forgotten. However, we must also make sure that the work of other activists are remembered too. They were ordinary people who fought against discrimination and prejudice in little ways that made a huge impact.

Unfortunately, they may never find their names in a history book, on a display board or in a museum. 

Fortunately, this book is now part of the Social Studies curriculum in South Carolina.

I believe that if everyone could spend just a little bit of time with Mr. Williamson, we would have a much healthier relationship with race, racial tension and racial unity. He is a special man for sure. I am honored that I was given the opportunity to spend time with him.

When he found out I was born and raised in New Jersey, he gave me a hug and called me his homey! I am proud and honored to be his homey!

I know I will think of him often and share his story to all who will listen.

I was provided an all-expense paid trip to the area as part of Travel South USA.  All opinions are my own.