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Rock Hill, South Carolina, students sit-in for U.S. civil rights, 1960
In 1955, before the sit-in campaign in Rock Hill, South Carolina even began, Rock Hill’s St. Anne School desegregated in compliance with the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. In 1957, Rev. Cecil Ivory (who would later become a leader in the sit-in campaign), led a bus boycott that put the Rock Hill bus company out of business. Sit-ins elsewhere, including in nearby Charlotte (see “University students campaign for racial integration in Charlotte, NC, 1960”), helped start Rock Hill’s own sit-in campaign. Sit-in protests lasted throughout the entire year. Clyde Williams, Jr., a leader of the Charlotte sit-ins, wrote that the goal of the movement was for African-Americans “to be able to sit down and have a cup of coffee like other customers.”
February 12, 1960, marked the first day of sit-ins in Rock Hill and the first in South Carolina. About 100 black students (mainly from Friendship Junior College) sat-in at Woolworth’s and McCrory’s. Both stores closed their counters until February 23. After the counters reopened, the students resumed their sit-in protests. They were led by Leroy Johnson, who acted as their spokesperson. CORE, a civil rights group, helped train at least two of the organizers of the Rock Hill sit-ins.
Rev. Ivory of the NAACP joined the students, holding a mass meeting to discuss the sit-ins. Meetings and rallies continued throughout the year to support and organize the protests. On March 14, Thurgood Marshall gave a speech at an NAACP convention in support of the students. The next day, sit-ins at lunch counters and at bus stations resulted in 70 arrests, with bail provided by the NAACP. Governor Ernest F. Hollings stated that the sit-ins were “purely to create violence and not to promote anyone’s rights.”
In mid-June, Rev. Ivory held a “wheelchair sit-in.” He rolled up to the lunch counter at McCrory in his wheelchair and asked for service, but was denied. He claimed that he did not break any laws because he never actually sat on a lunch counter seat. This incident was covered by the national press.
After two months of little protest, the sit-ins resumed June 23, 1960. In the fall of 1961, CORE organizer Thomas Gaither introduced “Jail, No Bail” in an effort to make the sit-ins more successful, gain new media attention, and decrease the amount of funds spent on bail ($17,000 in bail money had already been spent). On January 31, 1961, Rock Hill students were arrested at a sit-in and on February 1st they were found guilty of trespass (They were represented by attorney Ernest A. Finney). Instead of paying a $100 fine they chose instead to face 30 days of hard labor. They were sent to York County Prison Farm. Historian Howard Zinn wrote that this marked “the first time anyone had served full sentences in the sit-in movement.” After one student decided to pay the fine and be released, the remaining students become known as the “Friendship 9.” On February 6, the SNCC sent four more students to Rock Hill, where they were arrested as well. Two were sent to the Prison Farm while the other two, both women, were sent to York County Jail. The next day a mass meeting of 300 people was held by Rev. Ivory; they voted to visit the Prison Farm the following Sunday.
On February 8, protester Edward Haan became the first white person to participate in the protests at Rock Hill, according to the Rock Hill Evening Herald. Picketing in protest of segregation began the same day, and letters to the editor both for and against segregation were printed. Margaret H. Gregg, a student supporter, wrote that segregation was “a violation of a cardinal principle of Christianity—equality before God.” The protests gained media recognition in local and national newspapers as well as in local television.
The dean at Friendship Junior College, Raymond H. Jackson, did not punish protesting students for cutting class and the college’s president, James H. Goudlock, later criticized a new city policy that would allow police to break up protests or any public gathering. This allowed students at Friendship Junior College to continue their protests without interruption and with the support of their institution.
The weekend of February 11 marked the beginning of mass protests in Rock Hill. These included a motorcade to the Prison Farm, a 2.5-hour rally, a sit-in at a bus depot, and a “kneel-in” (where students were admitted to 3 out of the 5 churches where they had planned on praying). A week later a march was held in solidarity with the Friendship 9, who had been placed in solitary confinement for singing. The condemning song as reported by the Baltimore Afro-American was “Before I’d be a slave, I’d be dead and in my grave.”
Meanwhile, more letters were being printed from the perspectives of those on both sides of the struggle against segregation. On February 23, Rev. Ivory and two others were arrested for a “breach of peace,” while a few days later, on March 2, the Friendship 9 were released from prison. Five days later a mass meeting was held in their honor. Novelist Lillian Smith, a white Southerner, wrote of the Friendship 9: “This story of the Rock Hill jail-in will bother you…It is something that should not have happened in our country and yet it did happen.”
The Friendship 9’s release from prison marked the end of the sit-in campaign but not the end of the civil rights movement in Rock Hill. Thomas Gaither, the CORE organizer, proposed the Freedom Ride in early 1961, which took place later that year (see “Freedom Riders end racial segregation in Southern U.S. public transit, 1961”). The Albany Movement (Fall 1961 to Spring 1962) borrowed the “Jail, No Bail” tactic from the Rock Hill sit-ins and because of it gained national media attention (see “The Albany Movement campaigns for full integration in Georgia (Fall 1961- Summer 1962)”).
Although the Rock Hill sit-ins did not immediately lead to a victory for the civil rights activists, CORE director James Farmer wrote that the protests “turned the spotlight of publicity once again upon the evils of segregation.” In 1964 the Civil Rights Act desegregated all public accommodations.