Sandlapper Society

The Lunch that Changed History

by Dan Huntley • photo courtesy of The Herald (Rock Hill)

Fifty years ago, nine college students from Rock Hill went to jail for doing what millions of Americans have done billions of times— ordering a Coke™ and a hamburger. They didn’t rob anyone; heck, they weren’t even rowdy— these future lawyers, professors and teachers wore coats and ties into McCrory’s Five & Dime lunch stand on a rainy day on Main Street and politely ordered lunch.

And for that transgression on Jan. 31, 1961— the restaurant refused to serve them because of the color of their skin, then called the police— the students were sentenced to hard labor at the York County Prison Farm.

By going to jail, these young men made national headlines “Friendship Nine Held in Solitary Confinement” and helped turn the tide in the Civil Rights struggle to end segregation.

Why? Because they were the first lunch counter protestors to choose jail instead of posting bail, and their “Jail, No Bail” decision became the template strategy across the South.

The initiative served two purposes:

The students were sentenced to 30 days in jail and their attorney was Ernest Finney, who later became the state’s first black chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court.

“Those were hard times back in ’61; we weren’t sure what was going to happen,” said Jim Wells, now a retired attorney but then a student at Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill.

“In the mornings they would make us lift a huge pile of bricks from one side of the prison yard to the other; in the afternoon we would have to move the bricks back to the same place. It was a calculated move to break us down physically and mentally, to humiliate us.

“I had asthma pretty bad and my folks were worried about me getting my medicine in prison,” said Wells. “But we had a lot of support in the community, people would come visit us on Sundays… It was a hard decision at the time but I have no regrets; it’s good that people still recognize what we accomplished here in South Carolina.”

Scott Huffmon, associate professor of political science at Winthrop University, says the significance of the Friendship Nine is that they did “the right thing at the right time.
“The national press had pretty much gotten bored with the sit-ins, the protester’s bail would be paid, end of story,” said Huffmon, who serves on a committee planning several events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Friendship Nine in 2011. “By early 1961, the Deep South establishment had dug in and were not going to integrate. But slowly, protests such as the Children’s March in Birmingham and the Jail, No Bail movement would let the rest of the country know that this was not going away.”

“What made the Rock Hill action so timely was that it responded to a tactical dilemma that was arising in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) discussions across the South: how to avoid the crippling limitations of scarce bail money. The obvious advantage of ‘Jail, No Bail’ was that it reversed financial burden of protest, costing the demonstrators no cash while obligating the white authorities to pay for jail space and food.” — Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters.

W.T. “Dub” Massey was one of the students arrested for trespassing and breach of peace.

“We were college students and had never been in jail,” said Massey, a lifelong educator in York County. “I don’t think any of us realized, at the time, the historical significance of what we were doing… It was just wrong for us or anyone to be refused to be served in a restaurant and things needed to change.”

Tom Hanchett, staff historian for the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, has extensively studied the Civil Rights movement in the Carolinas.

In addition to the Friendship Nine, he also points out several other significant events in Rock Hill’s Civil Rights history:

“I think that what some people don’t realize today is that in the 1950s and ’60s, jail was a very dangerous place for Civil Rights protestors,” said Hanchett, who organized the permanent Civil Rights exhibition at the Museum and is planning a screening of the documentary “Jail, No Bail” at the Museum in May.

“We did a series of oral histories with the Friendship Nine, and what you realize is how scared these young men were and how they had the courage to refuse bail and go to jail for a cause they believed in.”

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The Men of the Friendship Nine

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This article is sponsored by Rock Hill Coca-Cola Bottling Company.


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