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Friendship Nine’s Clarence Graham remembered

A member of the U.S. Airforce Honor Guard unfolds an American flag to place over the casket of Clarence Graham Friday at Boyd Hill Baptist Church.
A member of the U.S. Airforce Honor Guard unfolds an American flag to place over the casket of Clarence Graham Friday at Boyd Hill Baptist Church. tkimball@heraldonline.com

Willie T. “Dub” Massey couldn’t help but smile Friday afternoon. He had a feeling his friend and fellow Friendship Nine member Clarence Graham was looking down and smiling, too.

Mourners followed as the casket carrying the remains of the man with a big personality who made an even bigger impact on American civil rights was wheeled out of Boyd Hill Baptist Church. As they followed, they sang: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.”

“That song was made for us,” Massey said after the memorial service. “He was not afraid. We were not going to turn around.”

Hundreds filled the church sanctuary Friday to remember the Rock Hill civil rights hero who died at age 73 on Good Friday.

Graham was one of nine Friendship Junior College students who spent 30 days in jail in 1961 after being convicted of trespassing for sitting down at the lunch counter of the all-white McCrory’s in Rock Hill. They chose a month of hard labor on the chain gang over paying a $100 fine, and their sacrifice reignited the civil rights movement.

Massey said Graham was the most outspoken and verbal member of the group.

“He didn’t mind telling you what was on his mind,” Massey said. “The rest of us, we kind of supported him as much as we could. In some cases, we thought he was a little bit on the edge. As a result of him having strong convictions and being able to carry himself and project himself, it made it easy for us.”

Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols said Graham’s determination cements his place not just in the city of Rock Hill and the United States, but in history.

“His life stands out and will forever be a part of history,” Echols said, “because of the turbulent times in which his courage was demonstrated and how he continued to share his driving motivation that all people deserve a fair and just opportunity in life.”

Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit solicitor, said he met Graham in fall 2014, when they set out to get the Friendship Nine’s convictions thrown out.

“Far too many people in this world faced with challenges and obstacles just complain and talk about what somebody else ought to do,” Brackett said. “But he knew if you want to make a difference in the battle of justice, you’ve got to have a backbone, not a wishbone.

“Clarence Graham had enough steel in his spine to build a skyscraper,” Brackett continued. “And when the flimsy policies of segregation struck that steel, it sparked a fire – a fire that burned down the house of Jim Crow.”

Kimberly Johnson authored the children’s book “No Fear for Freedom: The Story of the Friendship 9.” She said Graham constantly questioned her to make sure history was rooted in her mind and challenged her to keep writing.

“I would always say to him, ‘Mr. Graham, how does this sound?’” she said. “And his response: Oh, my goodness.”

Johnson said she grew close to Graham and his family while writing the Friendship Nine’s story, and called him “a pillar of grace, a soldier of peace, a man of incredible dignity.”

“If I never live another day, I have had the best years of my life the past two years of my life,” she recalled him saying to her. “And nothing can take that away.”

“Mr. Graham,” she said, looking down at the casket. “How did that sound?”

Many commented on Graham’s sense of humor, and Friday’s service had its share of laughs.

Josephine Jordan met Graham in 1947, and the two were in Emmett Scott High School’s class of 1959.

“We loved each other. Clarence was my boyfriend,” Jordan said to a burst of laughter. She recalled a time when the two, as children, had to pick cotton to get enough money to go to the fair.

“Clarence was my boyfriend – he gave me all his cotton,” she said. “Between Clarence’s cotton and my cotton, we still didn’t have 100 percent.”

They remained friends for the rest of Graham’s life, and Jordan said they spoke regularly during Graham’s recent hospitalizations.

“The conversation always ended in, ‘I’m going to the dealer. I’m gonna get me a car, Jo, and we’re going riding,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘OK.’ He always ended our conversations in the last six weeks with that.”

Jordan asked the other class of 1959 graduates at Friday’s service to stand and be recognized.

“Good night, Clarence,” she said. “We will see you in the morning.”

Teddy Kulmala: 803-329-4082, @teddy_kulmala

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