- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Nearly 54 years after they went to jail for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter in Rock Hill, the Friendship Nine are returning to court to get their records cleared.

Children’s author Kimberly Johnson of York, South Carolina, is proud she helped make that happen.

Her latest book, “No Fear For Freedom,” is about the nine Friendship College students and a young civil rights organizer who refused to pay a $100 fine and spent 30 days at a York County prison farm in 1961. Over the years, the convictions haven’t gone away. But that will change in January.

“I feel all that I did was get the truth in front of people,” said Johnson. “And somebody listened.”

That somebody was 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett of Rock Hill.

Johnson recently met with him to share insights she’d gotten from a recent rereading of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

In July, she’d accepted an invitation from King Center CEO Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., to attend a weeklong nonviolence study camp in Atlanta. Bernice King wrote the foreword to Johnson’s book on the Friendship Nine.

The session included bus trips to Montgomery and Birmingham in Alabama to tour key sites in the American civil rights movement. Participants also studied civil rights texts like the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Johnson had read the letter many times before. But on this occasion, the letter’s argument that it’s not a crime to break an unjust law suddenly resonated for her.

When Johnson discussed the issue with Brackett, he was sympathetic. He said people had approached him several times about what could be done about throwing out the Friendship Nine convictions.

“I’ve never had an issue about doing anything to right the wrong,” Brackett said. “The question has been how to go about doing it. Expunging the record or a pardon didn’t strike me as appropriate because they (the Friendship Nine) didn’t do anything wrong.”

After meeting with Johnson, Brackett said it occurred to him for the first time how to deal with the issue in a way that honored the Friendship Nine’s courage and sacrifice.

In late January, he’ll be back in court on a motion to vacate the cases, clearing their records. The session will be at the Moss Justice Center in York, and presiding Circuit Court Judge John Hayes III will make the judicial order to have the cases vacated. He’s the nephew of the original trial judge, the late Rock Hill City Judge Billy Hayes.

Retired S.C. Chief Justice Ernest Finney of Sumter, the first black on South Carolina’s Supreme Court and the person who represented the Friendship Nine in 1961, will represent them again in January.

Friendship Nine member Willie McCleod told the Rock Hill Herald that he was always concerned about history being erased if the record was expunged.

“My record for fighting segregation was always something I was proud of,” said McCleod. “I don’t want it erased. I want people to remember what we did and why we did it.”

The court hearing to clear their records would keep history intact while acknowledging the wrong done by the legal system.

Clarence Graham of Rock Hill, one of the Friendship Nine, hopes the court action will “open eyes to what injustice was done.”

Meanwhile, he and other local members of the Friendship Nine continue doing speaking engagements and want to expand their efforts at providing scholarships to students.

The Friendship Nine protesters are McCleod, Graham, David Williamson Jr., John Gaines, Mack Workman, Thomas Gaither, James Wells, W.T. “Dub” Massey and the late Robert McCullough. All except Great Falls native Gaither, a civil rights organizer, were teenage students raised in Rock Hill who were attending the all-black Friendship College when they were arrested.

All were honored decades later by the city of Rock Hill. Stools with their names on them are still in use at the Five & Dine restaurant on Main Street in Rock Hill, where McCrory’s store and lunch counter stood in 1961. A tenth man, Charles Taylor, was convicted but left jail after a few days because he would have lost a scholarship at school.

Graham thinks Johnson’s book has “broadened our horizons.”

“Kim has been a godsend for us,” said Graham, 72, a retired social worker. “We love the book. It’s created a lot of stir. We’ve developed a great, great friendship.”

For Johnson, writing about the Friendship Nine was a chance to tell an inspiring story. She’ll be with them in her hometown of Shelby on Saturday for a “living history” program on the civil rights icons at the Earl Scruggs Center.

The trip will stir memories of where Johnson first found inspiration.

She lived with her grandparents, Amos and Lucy Pearson, in a black neighborhood.

Barely literate, the couple enjoyed having their granddaughter read newspapers to them aloud.

“They were really poor people, but they were hardworking and church-going people,” Johnson said. “And they were wonderful storytellers.”

The couple took good care of their granddaughter. Although they had little education, they recognized its value. The message to her never wavered: You can be anything you want.

“They never made me feel inadequate,” said Johnson, who worked her way through UNC Chapel Hill and became a Piedmont Airlines flight attendant. “They helped me build self-esteem. I had a solid foundation.”

The Rev. Sam Raper, pastor of Shelby’s Mount Calvary Baptist Church, was also part of that foundation. A Shelby City Council member for 25 years, he was the first black person elected to office in Cleveland County. A businessman and community leader, “he was larger than life,” Johnson recalled.

When she came home as a flight attendant, her proud grandmother insisted Johnson wear her uniform to church, where Raper led the congregation in applauding her. “I was embarrassed,” she said. “But they were planting the seeds of hope.”

Johnson moved to York from Fayetteville when her husband, Jeff, retired from the Air Force in 2004. She’s nearing completion of a doctorate in education from Northeastern University in Boston.

Three years ago, Johnson connected with the Friendship Nine. She knew something of their story, but when she started digging deeper: “I was blown away by their courage, bravery and what they stood for. I knew I had to do something about them.”

She feels doing a program with the Friendship Nine in her hometown is almost like paying homage to her grandparents.

“It’s a way to say thank you to the older generation for helping me understand things like kindness, integrity and helping others,” Johnson said. “That’s what the Friendship Nine exemplify. It makes me proud to know they did the right thing.”

The (Rock Hill) Herald reporter Andrew Dys contributed.


Information from: The Charlotte Observer, https://www.charlotteobserver.com

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