Friendship Nine photo
Charleston Nine photo
Another bit about the flag, and then I hope we’re done talking about it.
I watched the ceremony last Friday, live on our local channels; there was a massive crowd at the statehouse to see the flag come down — folks from both sides of the issue — but for me the best part was the lack of public speaking.
We’d endured weeks of our senators and congressmen, governor and priest and pastors, talking about the flag, so it was nice that the ceremony took place in silence, save for the chanting of the crowds. It was all over in a matter of minutes, and soon the pole itself will be removed and the memory of that flag, and why it was there in the first place will no longer be in our faces.
But I found a really interesting side note to the story, which I had not heard before, so I thought I’d share it: about how the flag when up as a sort of protest of nine Black Americans and then came down fifty-four years later to honor a different nine Black Americans.
The Confederate flag was first set atop the statehouse on April 11, 1961 to commemorate the centennial celebration of the firing on Fort Sumter, which started the Civil War. It was set to fly above the statehouse for that one year except …
A few weeks before the Confederate battle flag was first hoisted in 1961, 10 black students from Friendship Junior College were arrested, and later convicted, on a charge of refusing to leave an all-white lunch counter in Rock Hill. Nine of those students, who became known as the Friendship Nine, revolutionized the civil rights movement by refusing bail.
Taylor Branch — who wrote an amazing book on the Civil Rights movement, called Parting The Waters … read it if you can, it’s wonderful, wrote:
“The obvious advantage of ‘jail, no bail’ was that it reversed the financial burden of protest, costing the demonstrators no cash while obligating the white authorities to pay for jail space and food. The obvious disadvantage was that staying in jail represented a quantum leap in commitment above the old barrier of arrest, lock-up and bail-out.”
And even though the Friendship Nine stayed in jail for a month, doing hard labor at the York County Prison Farm, their actions spurred others to perform acts of civil disobedience at white-only businesses throughout the south.
Following the arrests and conviction of those nine students, a request to keep the flag on the statehouse was introduced by Representative John May, and on March 16, 1962, when the flag should have been coming down, the general Assembly voted to keep the Confederate flag on the capitol building.
Then, in 2000, civil rights activists successfully lobbied to have the Confederate flag removed from the capitol, albeit it with a compromise. The flag was removed from the dome, and placed atop a flagpole on the statehouse grounds, where it remained until July 10, 2015.
And so here’s the symmetry of the situation …
On January 28, 2015, a York County judge tossed out the trespassing convictions against the Friendship nine — fifty-four years after their arrests — saying the men should never have been charged in the first place.
“We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history. Now, as to the Friendship Nine, is the time and opportunity to do so. Now is the time to recognize that justice is not temporal, but is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.” — Judge John C. Hayes III
That was just a few months before a white supremacist gunned down nine black worshipers after a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The murderer had a Confederate flag license plate on his car and posed for many pictures proudly displaying that flag.
And that action, the deaths of those nine people, was what spurred on the march toward finally, fifty-four years later, having the confederate flag taken down from the statehouse grounds.
It’s circular, sometimes, history is, because that flag was kept atop the capitol building as an insult to nine Black students fighting for their civil rights, and then five decades later it came down following the deaths of nine Black Americans at a Bible study class.