They made history through civil disobedience, served a month on a South Carolina chain gang for trying to order hamburgers at a McCrory’s 5 & 10 lunch counter and had their records cleared only after their story was recounted in a new children’s book.
This is the story that WBTV (Channel 3) reporter and civil rights documentarian Steve Crump tells in his latest historical work “Principle, Punishment and Redemption,” the story of the Friendship Nine, whose convictions were vacated in a Rock Hill courtroom 2014, nearly 54 years after their arrests.
A multiple Emmy winner, Crump has spent his career doing documentaries on the side because, he said, he realized that the voices of those in the Civil Rights era are steadily going silent, and he could be among the last to capture their memories and tell their stories.
Lunch counter sit-ins have a distinct Carolina pedigree. It was the Woolworth’s luncheonette in Greensboro where the movement was born in 1960 and then flashed across the south.
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North Carolina luncheonettes, including those in Charlotte, were integrated in about six months, but in South Carolina the forces of segregation stood strong.
Rock Hill’s McCrory’s counter on Main Street was the launchpad in 1961 of the “Jail, No Bail” movement in which protesters would accept jail time – a month each in lieu of a $100 fine in the case of the Friendship Nine – and force the state to bear the cost of housing and feeding them.
“You could go around and spend your money everywhere in the store, except the lunch counter,” Thomas Gaither, one of the Friendship Nine, recalls in the documentary.
Most were students at all-black Friendship College and they spent their sentences shoveling sand into dump trucks at a Rock Hill prison farm. Besides Gaither, they were Willie McCleod, the late Clarence Graham, David Williamson Jr., Mack Workman, John Gaines, James Wells, W.T. “Dub” Massey and the late Robert McCullough.
After children’s author Kimberly Johnson of York wrote “No Fear For Freedom” about them, Solicitor Kevin Brackett of Rock Hill figured out a way to clear the records of the men after legislative efforts had failed in their behalf.
Brackett brought the men back to court in York County in January 2015 and made a motion to vacate the cases, thus clearing their records, and apologized to them for the injustice in 1961. Presiding over the case was Circuit Court Judge John Hayes III, the nephew of the original trial judge, the late Rock Hill City Judge Billy Hayes.
Representing the men was their same lawyer from 1961 – retired S.C. Chief Justice Ernest Finney, the first African-American on South Carolina’s Supreme Court.
Crump draws on historical photographs, old films, recent news video and contemporary interviews in telling the story of how changing attitudes in a single lifetime brought redemption to the trailblazing group and their principles.