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Rock Hill's rocky past 

 

In February 2011, it's a new and exciting era in Rock Hill and York County — one open with all sorts of possibilities and opportunities. And while things aren't perfect, they could be much worse.

Flash back, for example, 50 years ago to that day in early 1961 when 10 young African-Americans (nine of whom were students from Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill) politely but firmly stood their ground at the then-segregated McCrory's lunch counter on Main Street. When they refused to budge from that eatery after management would not serve them their orders of sandwiches and soft drinks, police arrested them on charges of breach of peace and trespassing.

The 10 civil rights activists were David Williamson Jr., Willie McCleod, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither (a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality), Clarence Graham, W.T. "Dub" Massey, James Wells, Mack Workman, Charles Taylor and Robert McCullough. (McCullough is deceased.)

One of the students, Taylor, paid the $100 fine and returned to school. But the other nine suffered 30 days of hard labor, on the chain gang, at the county jail.

They reasoned that their cause for human rights would draw more attention if they did time in jail. The students also knew that the white power structure of that era had but so much time and money to deal with those who would challenge the status quo of the Jim Crow South.

Turns out, the young men were right. A movement gained traction. Thousands more brave (but nonviolent) black students joined the cause, sitting in at lunch counters across the South. They went to jail instead of bowing to the status quo of not being served in white-only eating places. Historians have said the national media's spotlighting of the "jail, no bail" strategy sparked a tipping point in the shaping of American public opinion in favor of the black protestors.

But if you believe all this happened in the blink of an eye in Rock Hill or elsewhere, you'd be mistaken. The struggle for human rights — for an America where blacks and whites are treated the same and have the same opportunities for a quality life — was long, arduous and sometimes ugly. And even today in Rock Hill and the rest of the South, some would say the struggle continues.

Yes, America has a black man as president and many African-Americans in key leadership positions in industry, business, education and the military. But in 2011, unemployment and prison incarceration rates and infant mortalities among blacks are much higher than those for whites. (In South Carolina, for example, a state that is about one-third black, 69 percent of the prison population is black. And in black neighborhoods throughout the U.S., the unemployment rate for blacks is about twice that for whites.) Another dismaying statistic: Blacks in the U.S. earn only about 58 percent of what whites get paid, and the percentage of people of color in America living below the poverty line is much higher than that for whites.

On the other hand, if you compare the racial climate in Rock Hill of 2011 to that of 1961, the community has made giant strides.

A veteran journalist reflects

Marshall Doswell, long-time retired associate editor of the Evening Herald newspaper in Rock Hill, noted how far they've come when he spoke in January 2007 at a plaque dedication ceremony honoring the Friendship Nine. There were actually two Rock Hills of 50 years ago, according to Doswell, now 89: one for blacks and one for white people.

"Three fourths of the people where white. They ran things," Doswell recalled at that dedication ceremony. "The City Council was white. The city administration was white. The police department was white. The fire department was white. The school board was white. The school administrators where white. The downtown business section was white. ... The Evening Herald where I worked was white, except for the press crew.

"And then there were the black people, the other fourth of the population," he continued. "They had their own churches and their own neighborhoods. The black children went to all-black schools. Their school buildings were not as nice. The jobs available to black people were at the low end of the scale. Black people could be maids, or servants, or janitors, or garbage collectors, or handymen. In the textile mills they could be sweepers or muscle heavy cotton bales. They could not have the better jobs. Because of that, most of them could not afford cars.

"Black people could not eat in white restaurants or at white lunch counters," Doswell added. "They could not stay in white hotels or motels. There were separate waiting rooms for whites and blacks in train stations and bus stations and even doctor's offices. Blacks could not use white water fountains, or white rest rooms. ... On buses, blacks were required to sit in the back seats. They could not sit in front of white people, or beside white people. ... They were not allowed to sit in white churches."

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