Lawyer, jurist, educator. Finney was born in Smithfield, Virginia, on March 23, 1931, to Ernest A. Finney, Sr., and Collen Godwin. His mother died when he was ten days old, and he was raised by his father, an educator. In 1946 his father became dean at Claflin College in Orangeburg, from which Finney graduated in 1952 with an A.B. degree. In 1954 he graduated from South Carolina State University with a Juris Doctor degree. After law school, Finney found it difficult to earn a living from legal work, so he taught in Horry County and waited tables at the Ocean Forest Hotel, where, ironically, Finney attended his first convention of the segregated South Carolina Bar by serving as a waiter. He married Frances Davenport of Newberry in 1955. They had three children.
After five years in Conway, Finney moved his family to Sumter and devoted himself to law practice. He practiced law with Ruben Gray. Working with Matthew J. Perry, Finney gained a reputation as an outstanding defense lawyer and civil rights advocate. Together they defended more than six thousand clients who had been arrested for taking part in freedom rides and demonstrations. One of Finney’s most notable defenses was on behalf of nine students in Rock Hill in 1961 who staged one of the first sit-ins in South Carolina. He lost almost every case that went to trial but won all but two on appeal to higher courts. Finney observed, “I have never known abject poverty, but I have known segregation in its worst form. I therefore believe the law is absolutely necessary to protect the rights of all citizens.”
In 1963 Finney was appointed chairman of the South Carolina Advisory Commission on Civil Rights. In 1972 he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, one of the first African Americans elected to the General Assembly since the nineteenth century. He served in the state House from 1973 until 1976. Beginning in 1976 he was the first African American to serve as a circuit court judge in South Carolina. He was elected an associate justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court on April 3, 1985. He was elected chief justice on May 11, 1994, making him the first African American chief justice of South Carolina. He assumed office on December 17, 1994, and retired in March 2000. After leaving the bench, he practiced briefly with one son before becoming president of South Carolina State University in the summer of 2002.
Finney has received many honors in his career, including honorary doctorates from Claflin College, Coastal Carolina University, the Citadel, Johnson C. Smith University, the College of Charleston, South Carolina State University, and Morris College. He is also a member of the American Law Institute.
Richburg, Chris. “NAACP Leader Urges Fighting for Right Cause.” Rock Hill Herald, June 4, 2000, p. B1.