FORT MILL — Three members of the Friendship Nine, a group of college students who became civil rights pioneers, reunited at Fish Market Bar and Grill for a book signing more than 50 years after their protest of a segregated lunch counter at McCrory’s on Main Street in Rock Hill.
“No Fear for Freedom: The Story of the Friendship 9,” written by Kimberly Johnson and illustrated by Vanessa Thompson, depicts the history of the Friendship Nine and their story in the civil rights movement in Rock Hill. After being arrested for their sit-in at McCrory’s in 1961, the members of the Friendship Nine – the name is a reference to Friendship College, where the men were all students at the time – opted to stay in jail rather than bail, coining the phrase “jail, no bail.”
The new campaign spread throughout the South during the civil rights movement.
Clarence Graham, W.T. “Dub” Massey and Willie McCleod attended the June 19 event in Fort Mill to sign copies of the book that depicted the struggle they went through many years before. Not present were the other members of the Friendship Nine, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, James Wells, David Williamson Jr., Mack Workman and Robert McCullough, who passed away in 2006. Graham said he is proud of the respect the group has received for its contribution to the civil rights movement, but never expected to have such an impact on people.
“We didn’t think it was anything so spectacular,” Graham said. “We didn’t anticipate we would be talking about it 50 years later.”
Although the Friendship Nine have received a lot of positive attention for their sit-in, McCleod said it has only been a recent occurrence. At the time of the protest, the members received a mostly harsh response, McCleod said.
“It was a little hard to walk around Rock Hill with that stigma,” McCleod said. “Police harassed us. Every time we walked down the street police would stop us. Most of us left Rock Hill.”
McCleod said the civil rights movement has become much more accepted and appreciated, which has given the longtime friends the chance to speak more frequently and celebrate their contribution to the movement in the past 10 years. It was at the 50th anniversary celebration of the event in 2011 where the group met Johnson, who was immediately interested in sharing their story.
Johnson’s book functions as a picture book for young children but the outside margins of each page tells the history in longer form, meant to be read by older children and adults. Graham said he was excited when he found out that the book would be written in a format that would appeal to people of all ages.
Working on the book has been a three-year process for Johnson. She researched Northern newspapers for accounts of the protest because many Southern newspapers didn’t cover it. She also conducted frequent and extensive interviews with the surviving members of the Friendship Nine. Graham said Johnson has become like family to the group during the three-year process.
The members of the Friendship Nine have visited classrooms across the country to spread their story to children, but hope that having a book will make their story more widespread. In their time visiting schools, Graham and McCleod both said that children often don’t believe them when they talk about segregation.
McCleod said the book was needed because it will teach children about the struggle that people went through during the civil rights movement, a part of history he believes is too often ignored in schools.
“They know what racism is but they don’t know the struggles that it took to get where we are today,” McCleod said.
Johnson and the Friendship Nine are working with schools and libraries to integrate the book into different communities around South Carolina. The Friendship Nine have started a foundation to give scholarships to students interested in studying and furthering the civil rights of all people, and some profits from the book will go to the foundation.
Massey said having the book out and spreading the story of his group of friends has given him a chance to reflect on the accomplishments of his youth.
“My birthday is July 25th. I’ll be 72,” Massey said. “To live that length of time and then look back at probably the most effective thing that we’ve done, and it happened when we were 18 years old, is remarkable.”