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In My Words: The 'Friendship Nine' show that history keeps evolving

Kenn Gaither, an associate professor and associate dean in the School of Communications, writes in regional newspapers about his experience growing up the son of a civil rights activist and what a recent South Carolina courtroom decision says about today's struggles for social justice.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the (Durham, N.C.) Herald-Sun and the Greenville (S.C.) News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Associate Professor Kenn Gaither

The "Friendship Nine" show that history keeps evolving
By Kenn Gaither - kgaither@elon.edu

 
I am a son of the South who grew up in the North without fully grasping the history I needed to know.

My father was born and raised in South Carolina, but he moved to Pennsylvania with my mother to start a new life as a college professor before my brother and I came along. I grew up in a one-stoplight town, far removed from the battlefield my father knew as a civil rights protestor.

Despite my father’s legacy and remarkable ability to tell harrowing stories, history was distant and unrecognizable. It was unreachable, too far removed from my daily reality for me to comprehend what it must have meant to live in a deeply divided society where fear and hatred were the currencies of oppression. 

On a brisk January morning in 1961, my father, Thomas Gaither, helped organize a group of young black men to sit and request service at a whites-only lunch counter in Rock Hill, S.C. Sit-ins were a common, proven tactic for activists at the time, galvanized by grassroots efforts in Greensboro, North Carolina, the year before.

What my father and these men, who became known as the Friendship Nine, planned to do was different. They willingly chose to go to jail and not pay bail – a “jail, no bail” strategy that drew national attention. The men spent 30 days doing hard labor in a Rock Hill jail, comforted by spiritual songs and an unwavering belief in their convictions.

Last month, their original convictions were vacated amid a packed Rock Hill courtroom that erupted in cheers at the judge’s pronouncement. The media proclaimed it as a clear sign of progress in the racial divide.

Progress has been made, no doubt. Whites-only lunch counters are long gone and identity is far more liquid than it once was. In my father's era, society would have only called me black. Now, I can choose my identity as biracial or black. What it means to be "black" and "white" have changed in our increasingly heterogeneous society.

There is significant evidence, however, that we have invisible lunch counters designated for a privileged few. America in 2015 is a land of contrasts; at the same time tolerance for diversity is increasing, so too is the violence around social issues. From Ferguson to Staten Island, places have become conflated with the stark issues that rightfully raise questions about true societal advancement since 1961.

There are still far more social systems, policies and ideologies that promote privilege rather than equality.

One response to inequality is through anger and violence. The Friendship Nine stood for something greater, reminding us the absence of violence is not necessarily non-violence. The latter is a commitment that is both emotional and spiritual. It is a way of seeing and believing that eschews immediate gratification and results. It is an unbridled commitment to human equality and dignity.

It took my father’s story and those of the Friendship Nine to remind me that much of what we see in the present has its roots in a history of inequality and segregation. To separate current issues from those historical perspectives is to oversimplify the complex interplay between each.

I represented my father last month in that Rock Hill courtroom, finally grasping the deeper context surrounding his story. It is not mine, nor does it belong solely to my father. It is a shared history. It is a history that is “ours.” The judge refused to expunge the record of the Friendship Nine to not allow their history to fade from the pages of history. The record stands while the charges were vacated.

The remarkable story of the Friendship Nine is impervious to the accrual of time because it is an ongoing story rife with courage, bravery and now, justice. The story of the Friendship Nine is not finished; their actions are timeless, celebrating the triumph of human spirit over hate, bigotry and oppression.

The struggle for justice continues today so we can all have a seat at the lunch counter.

Kenn Gaither is an associate professor and associate dean of the School of Communications at Elon University.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
2/18/2015 1:25 PM