- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - “An ordinary brown corduroy boy / from folk who never had it made / but still managed to make / whatever they were to be from scratch,” his poet-daughter Nikky Finney wrote.

On a recent Thursday, Finney, retired chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court, was honored with the Center for Heirs‘ Property Preservation “Commitment to Justice” award for a lifetime of accomplishment in the face of obstacles and hardship.

He is the fourth person, and third judge, to receive the justice award, following Judge Richard Fields, the late Ted Stern, and former College of Charleston president and Judge Alex Sanders. The award primarily is a tribute to its recipients, but it also sheds light on the work of the center, Director Jennie Stephens said.

“Heirs property is not often understood,” Stephens said. “Recognizing these giants in the community has really helped. … We’re in South Carolina, and we know that South Carolina wasn’t always known for its appreciation of diversity.”

Finney fought for the rights of others, she said.

Ernest Finney is truly a great American,” Sanders said. “I am most impressed by his courage. I was with him in that era where he exhibited that courage. … He did everything with grace. He did it unheralded.”

He was never one to run from a challenge. He represented the Friendship Nine in early 1961 when the students spent a month in a Rock Hill jail after protesting lunch-counter segregation. Many participated in the sit-ins, but nine from Friendship College refused an offer of bail from the NAACP. They did not want to contribute to the coffers of segregationists. Henceforth, “Jail, No Bail” became a rallying cry of the civil rights movement.

Finney also opened a law office in Sumter, the seat of South Carolina’s White Citizens Council, and quickly indicated his willingness to collaborate with others.

Throughout his career he endured overt racism, trusting that the legal system ultimately would work, that the courts were an appropriate place to take the fight for enfranchisement.

In 1972 he was elected to the S.C. House and served on the Judiciary Committee. Four years later he was elected the first black Circuit Court judge, and then, in 1985, the first black Supreme Court justice since Reconstruction.

He rose to chief justice in 1994.

As one of only two practicing black lawyers in the state in the early 1950s, Fields was invited to speak to students at the fledgling S.C. State law school, where he met Finney for the first time. One trailblazer watched as another cleared a fresh route through the landscape of segregation, then went on to lead the state’s highest court.

“He handled his tenure as chief justice without any controversy,” Fields said. “He had the utmost respect for the court and bar.”

Born in Smithfield, Va., his mother died when he was an infant and was reared by his educator-father, aunts and uncles. When he was 12 his family moved to Orangeburg and his father became dean of Claflin College.

He graduated from Wilkinson High School and enrolled in Claflin. His first job: soda jerk at the college store.

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