30 Days on a Chain Gang: 60 Years Later
ROCK HILL, S.C. (WBTV) - It happened 60 years ago this coming Sunday.
Bold risks were aggressively carried out by a so-called new generation following one of our nation’s most memorable inaugurations.
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President John F. Kennedy took over the reins of power on Jan. 20 of 1961, and 11 days later on Jan. 31, all hell broke loose less than 30 miles south of Charlotte in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
David “Scoop” Williamson reflects on a moment that changed his life.
“They just snatched me up, took me out through the back door, slamming into the back door in the back,” he recalls.
Williamson and eight others connected to Friendship College were arrested for sitting at whites only lunch counter at McCrorys in downtown Rock Hill.
Willie McCleod was among the African American students who was arrested.
“We had never been to jail before, and we didn’t understand, not truly understand the danger,” he said.
Willie “Dub” Massey also found himself in jail.
“So it was kind of excitement along with fear. I think some of us were more scared than others,” Massey said.
Fear was real since jail became the endgame for fighting against restrictive Jim Crow policies, which included sitting at spaces designated for whites only.
State ordered confinement from city to city emerged as a risky reality directed at aggressive students hoping to move a society forward.
Historically Black college campuses across the Carolinas evolved as the well documented places of widespread student protests in 1960 with North Carolina A&T getting the lion’s share of attention for demonstrations started by four teenage freshmen at the Greensboro Woolworths.
Targeting lunch counters at five and dime stores was a planned strategy in achieving the goal of racial equality by being served where they sat.
Student protests in North Carolina ended by the summer of 1960 when communities eased the rules of segregation, but in South Carolina decision makers kept their heels dug in deep.
Forcing change in Rock Hill required pioneering an innovative tactic characterized as Jail No Bail.
Clarence Graham who attended Friendship College knew the sacrifice would be life changing.
“I believe that the decision that I made to the night before we were arrested was the most serious decision I made in my life,” he told WBTV during 2010.
The students from Friendship college were sent to the now closed York County prison camp where they were put on a chain gang for 30 days.
“I don’t think we were crazy,” Massey said.” I can say this because I was on the last one, to buy into it. I think it was something that had not been done before.”
Being arrested and not paying fines or posting bail forced the hand of South Carolina’s criminal justice system to pick up the tab for housing and feeding jailed demonstrators.
They pioneered what was called Jail No Bail.
During 2016, this group would have their convictions tossed out in a South Carolina courtroom.
York County Solicitor Kevin Brackett reexamined conflicts at the lunch counter, listened to the stories involving chain gang labor, and scoured decades of aging paper trails validating the jailed voices of those seeking equality.
“What we need to do is figure out a way that we can get these gentlemen back into court and give them an opportunity to contest the conviction and have it vacated,” Brackett said in 2015.
In the courtroom on Jan. 28, 2016 were surviving members of the Friendship 9, supporters from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee who lent support, and the original defense attorney from the 1961 court proceedings.
Returning to the courtroom was Former South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney who first represented the students after the arrests, and solicitor Kevin Brackett drove the point home by clearly spelling out what the case and convictions were really all about.
“There’s only one reason that they were charged and convicted for trespassing and that is because they were black,” Brackett told the packed courtroom.
Reaction was expressed with gratitude.
“The Lord let me live on and I’m gonna thank him every day,” Williamson said.
When the court proceedings in Rock Hill ended, Clarence Graham spoke for the Friendship Nine. His words were profound and prophetic.
“I said from this point on I can hold my head up. It’s never been down, and I think that God is gonna let us live a little bit longer just because of it and enjoy some of these quote unquote freedoms.”
Basking in the glow of a widely celebrated moral victory, international headlines trumpeted this South Carolina story of exoneration and redemption.
However, enjoying the fruits of newfound freedom for Graham was short lived.
Life ended at age 73, 14 months after his name was cleared.
Among the mourners, York County Solicitor Kevin Brackett.
“I am so very grateful that we were able to accomplish what we did, when we did, so he could live long enough to see himself legally vindicated but vindicated in the eyes of history and the community.”
Two years later in 2018, Rock Hill also said goodbye to James Wells who sought justice after being jailed by becoming a lawyer, and last month another member of the group passed away.
Willie McCleod died in December of 2020.
He put the efforts of what happened during 1961 in a 21st century perspective weeks before the court proceedings.
“Anything is possible. All you’ve got to be is committed, and have the desire, " McCleod expressed.” Of course you’re going to sacrifice.”
It is a sacrifice that continues to inspire and make a difference.
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