- 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.

Finney’s father kept his son on a straight and narrow path. “Dad always wanted me to be a lawyer,” Finney said. “What the old man said was gospel.”

In the early 1950s, the civil rights movement had not yet reached its “heroic phase” - that would begin with the outlawing of school segregation in 1954, with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and last until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act - but there were many battles, many figureheads galvanizing communities and arguing for justice. Much of this activity ended up in court.

Finney graduated from S.C. State College law school in 1954, the same year of the Brown decision. The law school was established because the University of South Carolina would not admit blacks. Finney passed the bar exam in 1955, but could not immediately practice law because of the last of Jim Crow laws. So he waited tables at the Ocean Forest Hotel in Myrtle Beach, serving white lawyers his age.

“He had a family to take care of,” his daughter Nikky Finney said. “He put pride aside and had to wait until that time in South Carolina had passed.”

Finney wooed and eventually won the hand of Frances Davenport, a fellow Claflin student.

Frances became a school teacher; Ernest launched a legal career. Three children came along, two boys and Nikky. The parents taught their children manners and how to make sense of the world, Nikky Finney said.

When Ernest Finney received a call from one of the Friendship College students, he took on the case, embracing the challenge. When the students insisted on “jail, no bail,” Finney thought they were crazy.

“They had made up their mind, and I was not going to stand in their way,” he said.

The episode had a lasting impact on the freedom movement, influencing many activists, especially those involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Nikky Finney said it was a moment when two parts of the movement came together - members of the legal community and others considered part of the old guard, and young radicals. Some believed the system would work, but many young activists were agitating for change in the streets.

“I was always concerned about these young people,” Ernest Finney said, never abandoning his faith in the system. “I always had a desire to be a politician. I wanted to be part of the structure that made the decisions.”

Years later, already an experienced state legislator, Finney ran for Congress but lost. Attorney General Robert Kennedy invited him to join the Justice Department staff. Finney declined. “I thought my struggle was here,” he said.

Nikky Finney came of age outside the system. She learned her history, and it made her want to write. The work of the Center for Heirs‘ Property Preservation is essential, she said. “Without land, anybody can come and tell you to leave.”

Ownership is key, and retaining property is increasingly difficult. Gentrification is taxing people off their land, she said. The prospect of making quick money convinces some to sell, sometimes undercutting siblings who have as much claim to the property as the seller.

This happens because deeds are missing, or never existed in the first place, because of economic pressure, because life along the coast isn’t always easy. “And God ain’t makin’ no more land,” Nikky Finney said.

Ernest and Frances Finney now live comfortably on the outskirts of Columbia. Their children are thriving. Chip is a solicitor in Sumter; Jerry is an attorney in Columbia. Nikky writes. Her recent volume, “Head Off & Split,” won the 2011 National Book Award for poetry. Last year she returned to her home state to assume a teaching post at the University of South Carolina and to be closer to her family.

The Finney parents learned as they went along, and knew enough to expose their children to the world and the realm of ideas. They did not determine their children’s careers; they opened their minds.

“We want all of you to be whatever you want to be,” Ernest Finney told them. “Just be the best.”


Information from: The Post and Courier, https://www.postandcourier.com

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