Willie McCleod sat down at the Rock Hill lunch counter Saturday where, 58 years ago, he and nine others were taken away and jailed for sitting down. Now, his name adorns the chair and the counter in front of him.
“When I was first here, I didn’t think it was possible,” McCleod said.
He was one of 10 black men arrested Jan. 31, 1961, staging a sit-in protest in what was then McCrory’s Five and Dime. Nine men, including McCleod, refused to pay bail, shifting the cost of their imprisonment onto the government.
McCleod returned Saturday to the diner, now the site of the recently closed Five & Dine, to talk to boys and girls about his fight against segregation.
The South Charlotte Chapter of Jack and Jill of America toured historically black Clinton College Saturday morning, then met McCleod at the Five & Dine location on Main Street to learn about his history.
“I think we do a good job, giving them some black history, but to see a living legend – I don’t think that’s very common,” chapter president Yolanda Lindsay said. “And so we wanted to take some time with him and understand his story from a real-world perspective. We spent the morning at Clinton College and had a really rich experience there, so this is just the second level of that experience. It’s not something that happens every day.”
McCleod said groups in Rock Hill had been protesting long before the Jan. 31, 1961, sit-in. But they had paid a $100 fine instead of accepting jail time.
“We decided we were not doing what we intended to do,” he said. “In other words, they were not paying attention.”
Someone proposed taking the jail time.
“We knew about police brutality,” McCleod said. “We knew about the dangers of going to jail. So we had to find somebody willing to go to jail.”
The group of 10 men who protested at the sit-in trained before that day, McCleod said. The training involved them sitting in chairs while getting slapped, spit on and knocked from the chairs. They had to make sure the protestors wouldn’t fight back, McCleod said.
“Because they knew if you fought back, the police would kill you,” he said.
One of the protesters paid the bond to maintain his college scholarship, McCleod said. The other nine were sentenced to 30 days hard labor at the York County Prison Camp in York.
“When that iron door said clank, when the iron key went clink, clink — that’s when the fear set in,” McCleod said. “You’re in there and you don’t know what’s going to happen to you.”
Spencer Makell, 13, of Charlotte said the college tour and hearing McCleod speak gave him a chance to see how things have changed.
“Today was a pretty cool experience, learning about what happened back in the past,” he said. “And all of the privileges I have today, learning about all the things we had to go through to have all of the things we have today.”
Lindsay said the group was honored to meet McCleod.
“It was really important for our children, especially our middle school children, to have this experience and to really understand their heritage,” she said. “We want them to understand there were a lot of roads paved for them and a lot of sacrifices made for them to have the quality of life they have today.”