They tried to eat at a whites-only lunch counter in 1961. They were sentenced to a chain gang.

USA TODAY’s “Seven Days of 1961” explores how sustained acts of resistance can bring about sweeping change. Throughout 1961, activists risked their lives to fight for voting rights and the integration of schools, businesses, public transit and libraries. Decades later, their work continues to shape debates over voting access, police brutality and equal rights for all.

ROCK HILL, S.C. – Mack Workman’s hands went numb. He held his breath. Fear gripped his chest.

In front of him stood a dozen police officers.

Workman, then 18, hadn’t told his parents what he was doing that day. That he and his friends had plans to break the law at one of the most popular restaurants in Rock Hill, South Carolina. That they would sit at the department store lunch counter reserved for white people and would not have their humanity refused.

“I was afraid,” Workman said. “I had never done anything like this before.”

The police chief approached the group of Black young men and women standing in the street.

Don’t cause any trouble today, he told them.

Workman and the other young people kept walking, eyes fixed on their destination: McCrory’s Five & Dime.

Mack C. Workman
Mack C. Workman

More officers arrived outside the restaurant, along with a mob of white locals who threatened to beat the protesters. One activist was spat on, but the group comprised mostly of Friendship Junior College students made their way in. Each took a seat on a stool, placed their orders and waited to be served, all according to their plan.

“We can’t serve you here,” the manager told them.

The police officers pounced, grabbing the students from the stools before putting them under arrest.

The next day, the group of 10 men stood in front of Judge Billy Hayes to enter their plea on trespassing charges. They all wanted to plead not guilty, but before they could finish, Hayes pronounced them guilty.

One student afraid of losing his scholarship paid the $100 bail, but the other nine refused. They would accept 30 days of hard labor on a chain gang at York County Prison Farm. Confusion spread through the courtroom.

In the earliest days of the civil rights movement, anti-segregation activists worked diligently to raise enough cash to bail out their foot soldiers on the front lines. But the students, who came to be known as the Friendship Nine, set a precedent with their Jan. 31, 1961, protest at McCrory's Five & Dime and subsequent arrest.

Why should they owe bail for demanding their civil liberties? Why should the government profit from the bail money of the oppressed? If someone had to pay, it would be the government, forced to house and feed them.

The strategy fueled a new approach in the civil rights era: The “jail, no bail” movement cost no money and helped create a narrative for the media to highlight how much Black people were willing to sacrifice for equal rights.

The Rock Hill tactic was copied by students across the South attending historically Black colleges and universities. It was used in May 1961, when roughly 300 Freedom Riders chose jail, no bail in Jackson, Mississippi, for breaching the peace while demanding integration at bus stations. It was used again in December, when more than 500 protesters chose jail, no bail in Albany, Georgia, for trespassing while using “white only” facilities at bus stations, joining mass demonstrations and staging sit-ins aimed to desegregate travel facilities.

“The protesters in Rock Hill were students of history, and they were mindful that they played a critical role in a larger and deeper struggle that transformed the nation,” said Bobby Donaldson, an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and the director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research. “The activists knew and trusted one another, had confidence in their training – and their cause – and had the courage to try new tactics.”

In 1961, downtown Rock Hill was a one-stop, all-you-need place filled with department stores, drugstores, restaurants and dry cleaners. Black customers were barely tolerated, and they certainly were not allowed to sit, order a sandwich and eat their lunch alongside the community’s white citizens.

Young Black people were angry that they could purchase goods from certain stores, even order food at the end of the counter, but they were not allowed to be served or eat at the counter.

If they could desegregate McCrory’s, they reasoned, surely the other stores in Rock Hill would follow.

‘I am going to jail’

The group of students met in secret every day after school to train.

They pretended they were picketing. They acted out a sit-in.

Thomas Gaither, a secretary with the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights organization that used nonviolent and direct-action tactics to push for equal rights for African Americans, had carefully selected each student to help desegregate downtown Rock Hill.

“No matter what happens, we have to commit to being nonviolent,” Gaither told them.

Rock Hill is the largest city in York County and roughly a 30-minute drive from Charlotte, North Carolina. For months, more than 100 students worked together to protest segregation at local eateries. The Woolworth’s lunch counter in Rock Hill shut down to avoid further clashes.

As the spring semester approached, the Rev. Dr. William Diggs and the Rev. Ivory Cecil, members of the NAACP, encouraged the students to wait to do another sit-in at McCrory’s until after they registered for classes in case they were incarcerated.

About 40 volunteers agreed to the sit-in. The date marked one year after an impromptu demonstration at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, inspired copycat student-led protests across the South.

But when the morning came, only a few students showed up.

There were nine men: Workman, Robert McCullough, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, Clarence Graham, Willie McCleod, James Wells, David Williamson Jr., Charles Taylor.

A group of female students came along to show their support: Phyllis Tompson Hyatt, Peggy Archie Long, Olivette McClurkin, Essie Porter Ramseur, Lucille Wallace Reese, Patricia Hinton Sims and Elsie White Spring. The City Girls, as they were known, were a group of African American women at Friendship Junior College who worked to help desegregate the city.

As they were getting ready to leave, W.T. “Dub” Massey stumbled in. What are you doing here? the other students asked.

“I am going to jail,” he said.

‘Lunch counter closed’

It was morning. They walked in silence toward downtown, only the light chirping of birds and the occasional thrum of a car’s engine accompanying their march. The women waved signs: “You want our money, but you won’t let us sit at your lunch counter” and “We demand complete service or no service.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been that quiet in all the days we’ve been demonstrating,” said McClurkin, who prayed to herself as they walked. “I think we were all trying to figure out how this day was going to end.”

The students established two picket lines and marched outside McCrory’s. White people passed by, calling them derogatory names.

A piece of cardboard hit Williamson. When he turned and looked, he saw a white child. This was the first time he had ever experienced violence. He stared at the child until one of his classmates tapped his shoulder, snapping him out of his anger, and told him to keep moving.

After roughly 15 minutes of picketing, the 10 men entered the store. The City Girls waited outside, hugging one another and praying for their friends.

McCrory’s Five & Dime had a long lunch counter with leather stools. Many signs hung on the walls: Coca-Cola advertisements and country steak and baked roast beef prices. The restaurant was filled with the sounds of conversations and crashing dishes, Workman said.

The protesters never got to eat alongside the white diners.

“The police were so hyper and excited,” Gaither said. “We were dragged and taken to the back lot of the city jail.”

The city jail was behind McCrory's Five & Dime. The men were taken inside, fingerprinted, searched and charged for trespassing.

Two days later, McCrory’s Five & Dime posted a sign on their door: “Lunch counter closed.”

Hard beds, segregated cells

The York County Prison Farm consisted of three small holding cells with iron-barred doors. The prison was segregated, white prisoners on one side and Black prisoners on the other.

As the activists walked with the guards, other prisoners stared them down. The men were put into a cell, the door was closed and locked. For years, the men would hear the sound of the door banging closed.

The prison served them cold barbecue chicken and black coffee. The men talked through the bars and sang freedom and spiritual songs: “We Shall Overcome,” “Freedom” and “Chain Gang.”

As darkness fell, the cold, hard bed with no mattress bruised their bodies. The yelling and banging on the walls made it hard for them to sleep.

“We served jail time with hard criminals, prisoners who have committed murder and have done all kinds of things,” Gaither said.

Days passed, and they had no idea what was happening outside their cell walls. Communication with the outside world was limited to visits from their lawyers and phone calls.

Gaither used one of his phone calls to contact the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The student-based organization known as SNCC aimed to organize nonviolent and direct-action attacks on segregation and other forms of injustice. It would become one of the top “organization of organizers” of the civil rights movements, but in 1961, Rock Hill was one of its first major battles, said Donaldson of the University of Southern Carolina.

The next day, SNCC sent a team of leaders to Rock Hill to stage a “jail, no bail” sit-in. All four leaders were arrested for trespassing and refused to pay bail. Charles Sherrod and Charles Jones were sent to York County Prison Farm. Diane Nash and Ruby Doris Smith were sentenced to the county jail because the prison did not have a women’s section.

In this March 5, 2009, file photo, the Rev. W. T. "Dub" Massey, right, and Willie McLeod, left, pose at the counter where they were among the "Friendship Nine" who were jailed during 1960s civil rights sit-ins.
In this March 5, 2009, file photo, the Rev. W. T. "Dub" Massey, right, and Willie McLeod, left, pose at the counter where they were among the "Friendship Nine" who were jailed during 1960s civil rights sit-ins.

More SNCC leaders were sent to Rock Hill to organize picket lines, rallies and mass meetings.

On visitation day, hundreds of people lined up that Sunday to support the students. Visits were limited to one minute per person, and there was no privacy. The guards took notes of the conversations.

Gaines’s great-grandmother brought $200 to persuade him to reconsider serving time. He would not.

Workman had not spoken to his parents since he was imprisoned. When he was able to talk to them, his fears had been realized. His father, a janitor, had been fired by his white boss after Workman joined the protest at McCrory’s Five & Dime.

“My mother didn’t say much, but my father said, ‘After all that I’ve taught you – right from wrong – this is right, and I’m with you 100%,’” Workman said.

When crowds continued to show up for the students, York County Prison Farm eliminated Sunday morning visiting hours.

‘Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave'

Life in prison became a routine: wake up at 5 a.m. for breakfast, then a day’s worth of hard labor in a chain gang loading dirt into a truck, cleaning drains or digging a maintenance hole.

When they had time, they caught up on schoolwork. The prison allowed them to bring their textbooks, Williamson said.

They made friends with fellow inmates, many of whom looked up to them. The students mediated when arguments broke out. They taught freedom songs to the other Black prisoners.

“Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave,” they sang.

“Cut out that damned fuss,” a guard warned.

The men kept singing, landing themselves in solitary confinement.

The “hole,” as it was known, was a small room with one toilet and a small sink. Steel bars boarded the lone window, allowing little sunlight. The lights would turn on to signal mealtime. The prison served cornbread and water for two days and prepared a more robust meal of meat, fruit, vegetables, milk or bread on the third day.

In their darkness, the men did not stop singing.

After a day in solitary confinement, they returned to the general population, where they were ordered to do nearly twice as much work with the chain gang. Instead of loading 21 trucks with dirt each day, they now had to load 38.

A group of prison supervisors came to inspect their work one day. As they were leaving, Gaines waved at them.

Gaines' motion was perceived as a threat. The supervisors turned, grabbed him and took him. After the other men inquired about him, they were put back in the hole, but the prison guards did not answer their questions.

The men went on a hunger strike.

The fast was easy at first because it was a break from the horrible food. But by the second day, the lack of food felt as if their backs had blended with their stomachs.

They kept themselves going by imagining their favorite foods. Baby Ruth candy bars. Fried chicken. Steak.

On the third day, they were told Gaines had been taken to the county jail. The hunger strike ended, and they were put back to work.

‘We can right history’

On their 28th day in prison, all nine students, Sherrod and Jones worked half a day.

Then all 11 men were loaded onto the back of a dump truck and dropped off at the city limits of Rock Hill. They were free. Nash and Doris were released the next day.

“Our release was very low-key because the local authorities did not want to give us an audience or for the press to write about it,” Gaither said.

The city of Rock Hill was filled with talk of desegregation, inspiring Black and white people in nearby towns to join sit-ins and picket lines. The Congress of Racial Equality, which promoted nonviolent and direct-action tactics, invited the men to New York to talk about their experiences.

The students graduated, but not much changed in Rock Hill. One by one, they left for jobs or master’s programs up North. McCrory’s remained closed.

“It was as if the city was waiting for us to leave to go back to how things were,” Williamson said. “Life continued as if the sit-in in McCrory’s did not happen and we did not spend time in prison.”

In 2015, Judge John Hayes III, the nephew of the judge who sentenced the men to prison, overturned their convictions.

“We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history,” Hayes said during his ruling.

The city put a historical marker celebrating the Friendship Nine outside the old McCrory’s Five & Dime building, now a trendy restaurant called Kounter. The original counter surface and barstools from McCrory’s Five & Dime are engraved with the names of the men, the City Girls and Diggs and Cecil on the barstools and walls.

Only five members of the Friendship Nine are still alive: Massey, Workman, Gaines, Gaither and Williamson. They are now parents, grandparents, retirees.

Their pride in changing the course of U.S. history remains absolute.

After they were released from prison, the men walked a quarter of a mile to Friendship College. Once on campus, Williamson, overcome with relief, ran to a bell that sat in front of the school.

He rang it again and again.

To report these stories, USA TODAY interviewed veterans of the civil rights movement, historians and witnesses and reviewed public records.

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Americans stood up to racism in 1961 and changed history. This is their fight, in their words.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The birth of “jail, no bail” and how it altered civil rights movement