Following the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and the 1960 Woolworth lunch-counter sit-ins by North Carolina A&T students in Greensboro, African Americans in Rock Hill took the lead in energizing the civil rights movement in South Carolina. Led by the politically charged student body of Friendship Junior College, the Rock Hill movement signaled a major change in protest tactics by black Carolinians, supplementing traditional legal challenges with direct, large-scale demonstrations against segregation laws and customs.
From July to December 1957 black Rock Hill residents protested the segregated seating policies of the Star Transit Authority bus lines. Local members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led by the Reverend Cecil Ivory, and the Council of Human Relations (a chapter of the integrated Southern Regional Council) led the nonviolent protests. The boycott forced Star Transit out of business, leading local African Americans to establish an alternative service consisting of two buses purchased with community donations, which remained in operation until 1961. No city-sponsored bus services were available to the black community until 1965, but the new services were integrated. The experience during the bus boycott created a foundation for the stepped-up confrontations of the 1960s.
Just days after the “A&T Four” sought service at a North Carolina lunch counter on February 1, 1960, almost all of the 224 students at Rock Hill’s Friendship Junior College organized into the Friendly Student Civic Committee, choosing Martin Johnson, Abe Plummer, and John Moore as leaders. The first South Carolina sit-ins were held on February 12 (Abraham Lincoln’s birthday) at the Woolworth and McCrory variety stores as well as at Good’s and Philip’s drugstores. Approximately one hundred student demonstrators sought service at the stores’ lunch counters. Additional sit-ins and demonstrations continued intermittently for a year.
Inspired in part by a workshop held in December 1960 by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) field secretary Thomas Gaither, who touted the effectiveness of jail-ins as opposed to paying fines or accepting bail, the sit-ins and protests intensified in Rock Hill. On January 31, 1961, Gaither and nine Friendship students sat at the McCrory’s lunch counter and were immediately arrested. Rather than paying $100 fines, Gaither and eight of the students chose to serve thirty days’ hard labor in the county jail. Their action was the first “jail, no bail” declaration of the civil rights movement and brought the Rock Hill demonstrators national attention. Hundreds of relatives, friends, and sympathizers visited the students in jail.
Their actions inspired four Atlanta students affiliated with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to travel to Rock Hill, where they likewise sat in at McCrory’s, were arrested, and chose to serve their time in jail. The “jail, no bail” tactic switched the financial burden of protests from the limited means of African American demonstrators to white authorities, who had to pay for jail space and feeding the prisoners.
The sit-ins that began at Rock Hill soon spread across the state, with demonstrations occurring in most large communities in South Carolina. Meanwhile in Rock Hill, picketing of segregated businesses continued, and other students and NAACP members attempted “kneel-ins” at six white churches. Friendship Junior College, with its politicized group of young people ready to sacrifice school for their beliefs, was by then the center for student activism. Adults negotiated for the creation of a biracial committee through which to nego- tiate the demands for desegregated facilities throughout the city, but the mayor and city officials refused. Resolution came only after federally imposed civil rights legislation. The forced desegregation of the city’s Trailways Bus Station in 1962 foreshadowed the dismantling of discrimination in Rock Hill and throughout South Carolina.
Although the Rock Hill movement failed in its immediate effort to desegregate downtown businesses, its participants influenced activists across the South. The historian Taylor Branch called the events at Rock Hill “an emotional breakthrough for the civil rights movement.” The student-prisoners set a new standard of commitment to the movement and made the “jail-in” an integral means of civil rights protest. In January 2001 members of the “Friendship Nine” reunited in Rock Hill at an NAACP-sponsored program honoring the role these men played in the fight to end segregation.
Amick, Dorothy. “The Direct Action by Rock Hill Negroes in Protest against Segregation.” Master’s thesis, Winthrop University, 1970.
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942–1968. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Newby, I. A. Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.
Peck, James. Freedom Ride. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962.