Johnson pictured with members of the Friendship 9. From left, civil rights activist David Boone, who took part
in 1960s sit-ins, and Friendship 9 members Clarence Graham, James Well, Willie McCleod and W.T. “Dub” Massey. CHARLOTTE OBSERVER
In 1961, nine young African-American college students were arrested for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter at McCrory’s Five & Dime in Rock Hill. Instead of posting bail, they became the first sit-in participants to insist on doing jail time — 30 days hard labor — that served as a model for future sit-ins and protests.
For 54 years, historians have credited the men — known as the Friendship 9 — for actions that revived the civil rights movement. But their story was little known outside Rock Hill residents or civil rights scholars.
Until they met Kimberly Johnson.
Johnson, a graduate of Clemson’s youth development leadership program, is an award-winning children’s author living in nearby York who met the Friendship 9 by chance at the same McCrory’s Five & Dime in 2011. After her conversation with them, she knew it was a story to be shared.
She released her 17th title, No Fear for Freedom: The Story of the Friendship 9 — a children’s book — in 2014. The book received a wonderful reception locally, but Johnson was restless to do more, inspired by her research on the Friendship 9 and the civil rights movement as a whole.
Moved in particular by Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, which emphasized the creation of unjust laws, she approached the Rock Hill-area solicitor to see if the Friendship 9’s convictions could be overturned.
On January 28, 2015, in a packed courthouse and the eyes of the nation on them, the solicitor presented their case — and a judge threw out their convictions.
“There is always something that we can do to make things better,” said Johnson. “This case, in a small way, has opened the door for bigger conversations about race and diversity — it also sends a message to children and adults alike that justice is possible.”
Johnson says that message was reinforced during her time in Clemson’s youth development leadership program. “The program helped me understand that we are all change agents and that we can make a difference, starting with our own communities,” she said. “In that process, we can even begin to change the world!”
More information about the Friendship 9:
New York Times: South Carolina Court clears Friendship Nine in 1961 Sit-in (includes video of court appearance)
New York Times: Decades After Sit-in, South Carolina Seeks to Make Things Right
For more information about Johnson’s work with the Friendship 9 go to www.simplycreativeworks.com/.