Member of ‘Friendship 9’ recalls fateful day that changed history

ROCK HILL, S.C. — On January 31, 1961, David Williamson Jr., one of the original lunch counter-protesters, started a revolution by sitting down.

“We are sitting in the restaurant, and I couldn’t sit down back in the 50s, in the 60s,” Williamson said. “I could come in, but never sit down here. I could stand at this counter and order something; they’ll give it to me, but I’m sitting down. That was a no-no. It wasn’t a law. But you know, that was an understanding — the Jim Crow law that they call it.”

Nine students, known as the Friendship 9, marched to McCrory’s Five and Dime in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

At the time, it was a store and lunch counter, that did not serve Black people.

Now, it is a restaurant called Kounter, where you could find Williamson sitting in the very same seat where he once took a stand.

“And the lady, before she could get all the words out, we were snatched up, pulled up off the counter, and taken out back to the jailhouse,” Williamson explained. “Then they started to bring us out one at a time to book us and fingerprint us, and we stayed in there overnight.”

John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, Clarence Henry Graham, W.T. Dub Massey, Robert McCullough, Mack Workman, James Well, David Williamson Jr., and Willie McCleod were all convicted of trespassing.

“They always have court that next morning. So they got us all out, and we went to court,” Williamson said. “He took the gavel and hit it down on the thing. He says, ‘Find you guilty ... $100 or 30 days.’”

However, the group decided to buck the system and shifted their strategy to jail, no bail.

“Instead of going to the community and taking money out of the community to give to the city, you know, for an unjust law, we decided to go to jail with no bail; that way, they had to take care of us,” Williamson elaborated.

Williamson said paying the bail would have validated their own arrests as well as the acceptance of an immortal system. So, they spent 30 days behind bars and sparked a nationwide movement.

“We were trying to draw attention to the disparity between the races,” Williamson said. “We need to make a change and, you know, make things better. And when you do that, for that reason, then you know, you don’t worry about, you know, the recognition.”

On March 2, 1961, Friendship 9 was let out of the York County Prison Farm. However, justice for the group continued to move slowly.

Williamson explained that after they walked out of jail, those charges were still attached to his name for nearly 54 years.

“The only place it hurt us was right here. When I left and went to New Jersey, I always put down that I had been to jail,” Williamson said. “I couldn’t get a job around at that time. We couldn’t with that record, but I can say that with the prison record, I wore it as a badge of honor.”

However, five decades later, justice eventually came. In 2015, each member of Friendship 9′s convictions for staging the sit-in at that Rock Hill diner were dismissed.

“Long overdue and something I didn’t expect. I didn’t ever think it would happen. I never expected it,” Williamson said.

He also didn’t expect to receive his own seat—the one he was once told wasn’t made for him. “That’s another thing that blows my mind. Rock Hill? Me? Got my own chair? I said, Wow.”

Williamson still lives in Rock Hill and is one of five surviving members of Friendship 9. He said he hopes the next generation will also take a seat in order to take a stand.

“I’m hoping that instead of going back, we keep going forward. So things get better and better for everyone.”

VIDEO: Rock Hill restaurant preserves legacy of ‘Friendship 9′

Almiya White

Almiya White, wsoctv.com

Almiya White is a reporter for WSOC-TV