The date was Jan. 31, 1961. I was a 10-year-old, at home in Fort Mill, S.C., with my younger brother and sister in the care and keeping of our black maid when the phone rang.
It was my mother. She was at a bridge game or a Garden Club meeting, wherever she kept herself in the afternoons, and she had some alarming news. Just seven miles away, in Rock Hill, the colored people were … were … well, she wasn’t sure what they were up to, but the colored people were making trouble, and my siblings and I were not to go out of the house until she got home.
History tells us that on that afternoon, nine young students from tiny Friendship Junior College, in Rock Hill, entered McCrory’s variety store on Main Street and sat down at the whites-only lunch counter. When they refused to leave on request, they were arrested for trespassing.
Inspired by the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-ins a year before, and perhaps by the new spirit of optimism that John F. Kennedy had just brought to the White House, they knew it was their turn to step forward. They went off to jail peacefully that day and became a footnote in the Civil Rights Movement that would soon transform the nation.
That night my parents and I watched the story in silence on the evening news. The next morning it was in newspapers across the country.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about those students’ protest that day was that they pioneered a new direct action technique first developed by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). They called it “jail, no bail.” When the Friendship 9 were arrested and duly convicted of trespassing, they refused to pay the $100 fine. Instead, they went to jail for 30 days of hard labor, but in doing so, they switched the economic burden from the resource-poor African Americans to the white establishment, who were forced to feed and house them. Their action became a model for civil rights action across the South.
All but one of the Friendship 9 are still alive, most of them living in the Rock Hill area. On Jan. 28, they are due back in court, but this appearance will be marked by a spirit of warmth and good will, unlike the menace and anger of 1961. And that is just the beginning of the irony.
On that day, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett will ask Circuit Court Judge John Hayes III to vacate the convictions of the Friendship 9. Hayes is the nephew of the late Rock Hill City Judge Billy Hayes, who presided over the convictions of the nine more than half a century ago. Representing the nine in these proceedings will be Ernest Finney, who represented them in 1961. In the intervening years, he rose to become the first black chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court.
A couple of other ironic twists to this story: The Jan. 28 proceedings will take place in the Moss Justice Center in York, named for the late Judge Joseph Rodney Moss. In the 1980s, Judge Moss made national headlines when he used an racial slur against a group of African Americans in his court.
One more note of irony: Those were fearful times we lived in during the early 1960s. Americans built bomb shelters in their backyards, and school children practiced hiding under their desks from a nuclear blast. For white Southerners, the world was especially frightening. The “colored people,” as my well-bred Southern mother called them, were no longer “acting nice.” They were marching, they were sitting in, they were making demands.
The Southern fear was palpable in my mother’s voice on that long ago day, in her demand that I stay in the house until the “danger” had passed. And yet, four days a week she entrusted her home and her children to an African-American maid, as did countless white Southerners over many generations. Blacks were not considered fit to dine with white people, to use the same restrooms or the same swimming pools. Yet they were expected to cook their meals and clean their homes, to wash and feed and wet nurse their children. If whites saw any contradiction in this, they kept it to themselves.
In sitting down at a lunch counter reserved for whites, the nine Friendship College students were making more than a moral claim. They were shining a light on the absurdity of the entire Southern racial code. For those whites who were intelligent enough to recognize this, their chagrin was only compounded. Not only were they challenged on Main Street and in the national media by their social inferiors, but they were made to look like fools for all the world to see.
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