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“Jail, No Bail”: Tactics of Protest in the Freedom Struggle in Rock Hill, South Carolina

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In commemoration of Black History Month, my post today (number 999 in AFC blog history!) reaches into the Civil Rights History Project collection to illuminate one of the many facets of the civil rights era as recollected by veteran activists. Today I focus on Rock Hill, South Carolina and how some courageous young people, the Friendship Nine (also known as the Rock Hill Nine), waged battle against seemingly overwhelming odds in that town in the early days of the Movement.

Activists in the fight for freedom and equality during the civil rights era of the late twentieth century employed a range of tactics including wait-ins, sit-ins, pickets, passive resistance, walk-outs, and boycotts to combat racist oppression. Front-line freedom fighters struggling to bring about change in places far removed from the spotlight confronted racial oppression that was systemic and pervasive in the social, legal, and political spheres. In the face of such looming oppression, and with very limited resources of their own, freedom fighters adopted “sand in the gearbox” tactics, which were contingent, and startling even to their supporters, but effective (up to a point).

Sixty-one years ago this month, on February 1, 1961, the “Friendship Nine” – a group of African American college students at Friendship Junior College – adopted an unorthodox tactic termed “Jail, No Bail” during their appearance on trespassing charges in a Rock Hill, South Carolina court. The group had been arrested the previous day for trying to get service at a segregated lunch counter in the city (in other words, they staged a “sit-in”). Rather than paying a fine for violating a public ordinance, as was the norm, they chose instead to serve out their sentence of thirty days of hard labor on a county chain gang.

The move was a major departure from the usual behavior of activists, who when arrested would pay a fine to the local authorities and thus avoid incarceration. Ernest Finney, later a South Carolina Supreme Court Justice, represented the Friendship Nine in court as a young lawyer, and remembers being taken aback when meeting the young activists and learning about their plans in his CRHP interview.

As far as I knew, these nine people were going to be tried and get convicted, and I would have gotten their bond, and they would have been out. Well, somewhere, somebody had not fully informed their lawyer as to what they were going up about. And, lo and behold, after we had tried it, and the judge had imposed his sentence, they then announced to me that…they had a new facet of the Civil Rights Movement: They were going to do their jail time and not put up a bond. That was the first I knew about that! Because in these days, the lawyers had to walk a fine line between what they could tell their clients and what the clients would tell them. So, the first time I found out about “jail without bail” was after the conviction, as I recall it. I know I was shocked.


The publicity garnered by the detainees’ dramatic gesture garnered national coverage and widespread publicity for the case for desegregation. Although immediate changes were not forthcoming – public facilities remained off-limits to South Carolina’s African Americans until 1962 – the episode provided the impetus for the spread of actions to dismantle segregation throughout the state.

Bruce Hartford’s concise summary of the thinking behind the move is available for review on the Civil Rights Movement Archive, an invaluable online resource for insider perspectives of activists on many aspects of the Southern Freedom Movement. As he writes:
The Movement [in 1961] has little money and most southern Blacks are poor. It is hard to scrape up bail money, and sit-in struggles are faltering — not from lack of volunteers to risk arrest — but from lack of money to bail them out. Moreover, paying fines provides the cops with financial resources that are then used to continue suppressing the freedom struggle. By refusing bail, they render meaningless the no-money-for-bail barrier and by serving time they put financial pressure on local authorities who have to pay the costs of incarcerating them. l

In his interview for the Civil Rights History Project, Thomas Walter Gaither views “Jail, No Bail” as a departure from the standard tactics used by activists across the country. Gaither was not a student, rather an activist and trainer from the Congress of Racial Equality, who had been meeting with Rock Hill activists, including the Nine, about how to engage in the struggle. He was well aware that sit-ins at public establishments had become a regular feature in other parts of the country in the wake of the dramatic 1960 lunch-counter protest in Greensboro, North Carolina.

In Gaither’s recollection, serving time marked a departure from similar actions to date and raised the stakes in the fight against racial injustice:

The early sit-ins essentially resulted in people sitting at lunch counters and being arrested and then posting bond and the bond was used by the state to perhaps continue the practice and so I felt that there should be more, perhaps, of a commitment on our part – being willing to suffer for something that we really wanted have happen. So that’s why a year almost to the date after the first sit-ins, we got involved in the “jail, no bail” policy with the Friendship Nine. That was deliberate and that protest was really to occur one year after the first sit-ins, and it was to take us to a different level of commitment and that’s the essence of the “jail, no bail” […] So that willingness to suffer….we had hoped that that would appeal to the good-natured… sense of social justice that we hoped permeated enough people in the country for some positive change to occur.

Thomas Walter Gaither, interview for the Civil Rights History Project, 2011

As a tactic, “Jail, No Bail” initially succeeded in bringing dramatic publicity and visibility to protesters in Rock Hill and in other locales where it was utilized. However, it was gradually abandoned for a variety of reasons. Among those reasons, as Hartford notes, was that publicity came to be seen as less important than political organizing in the Movement with the joint understanding that activists needed to be mobilizing in communities, rather than languishing in jail. Most sobering was the realization that being jailed in rural southern counties carried risks ranging from beatings and brutalization to murder.

It took until 2015 for the convictions of the Friendship Nine to be overturned. At their hearing, they were represented in a Rock Hill court once more by Judge Ernest Finney.

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