Jerseyan's place in history sealed as soon as he sat at lunch counter | Di Ionno

By Mark Di Ionno | The Star-Ledger
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on February 11, 2015

On January 31st, in 1961 Charles Taylor, of Scotch Plains, was one of the Friendship Junior College students who sat at a lunch counter at McCrory's lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina and was arrested. Their conviction was recently overturned.

 

Charles Taylor was no ordinary freshman, no naive kid, when he left New Jersey to play football at a small, all-black Baptist college in South Carolina.
He was 22 years old, with a wife and daughter, and four years of factory work under his belt at General Motor's Hyatt Roller Bearing plant in Clark.

"I didn't know nothing about segregation," he said. "I never came in contact with it."
But in Rock Hill, S.C., Taylor would be one of the Friendship College students arrested on trespassing charges for sitting at the lunch counter at the local McCrory's, a five-and-dime that served food.

"Black people made the food, they served the food, but when it came time to eat, you had to go out the back door," Taylor said. "I'd never seen anything like it. Up here, (racism) was more camouflaged. Down there, they came right out with it."

The arrest of the 10 men - nine students and an activist - on Jan. 31, 1961, became a celebrated civil rights movement case. The men were found guilty the next day and sentenced to 30 days of hard labor, or $100 fine. Their rallying cry became "Jail, No Bail," and their legend grew as "The Friendship Nine" or the "Rock Hill Nine" throughout the movement.

"Part of the plan was they weren't going to pay the fine," Taylor said. "But I didn't know about that the plan. I wasn't a leader; I was one of the followers."

Taylor was arrested, found guilty, went to jail. His name - Charles Edward Taylor - is in all the original news clippings and subsequent stories from the day. But his name is not included in some later stories about the Friendship Nine because he didn't serve the full 30-day sentence.

"I did a few days on the chain gang, but I was afraid I was going to lose my football scholarship, so I paid the fine," he said.

Two weeks ago, the "Friendship Nine" made national news again when a South Carolina judge overturned the conviction and expunged the records of all 10 men arrested, including the 76-year-old Taylor.

He was invited to attend, but was snowbound in New Jersey.

"I wanted to go, but we had that blizzard."

Taylor's role in history started 55 years ago with a visit to the dentist in his hometown of Rahway.

"I had a toothache so I went to Dr. (Adam) McDaniel, and he asked me if I wanted to go to college. I said, 'Sure, man, I want to go to college' "

"He knew I was a pretty good football player in high school, so he said he might be able to get me a scholarship at the same college he went to."

A few months later, Taylor, the former all-county quarterback, was on a train headed to South Carolina.

It was eye-opening on many levels. It was at Rock Hill where he first learned about black history.

"I didn't know who Crispus Attucks was; I never even heard his name before I went to Friendship. But they taught us about the identity of black people."

It was also where he first witnessed law-enforced segregation and hatred, not only of blacks, but Northerners.

"After I got arrested, the cops were saying, 'You Yankees ain't gonna come down here and change things.' That's what they all called me, 'Yankee.' In jail, too."

On the day he was arrested, Taylor had just returned to Rock Hill after Christmas break.

"I just got off the train, and these guys said, 'Man, come with us downtown,' " Taylor said. "I knew they were doing protests downtown, so I went."

While a total of 18 men and women protested outside, only 10 went into McCrory's and sat at the counter.
"They told us to leave and we refused. Then we got arrested."
All these years later, Taylor remains sickened by the way he and the other protesters were treated. On the way to the York County Prison Farm, the blacks were squeezed into the hatch area of a station wagon, while three white prisoners sat comfortably in the back seat.

At the jail, "they said, whites go over to the right, blacks to the left. They put us in a big cage,' " Taylor said. "We could only go eat when the last white prisoner went in."

Taylor spend "four or five" days shoveling soil and "cleaning the fields" with the other black prisoners before his bail money came from home.

"Then I got out. I'd seen enough," he said.

But once out of jail, the threats and insults piled up.

"One night, the Ku Klux Klan almost got me. They walked around (Rock Hill) like we're sitting here. They said, 'There's one of them niggers, let's get him.' They chased me back to the dorm."

All of it - the racism, the chain gang, the KKK - chased him back to New Jersey, his old job and his family and his community.

He played football in the old Jersey semi-pro league for the Woodbridge Bears and Plainfield Red Oaks, immersed in church and the Centennial Lodge of Westfield Elks, where he became the club's exalted ruler.

Today, he lives in the Scotch Plains neighborhood where his mother, Isabelle Taylor, 93, grew up and where their extended family still lives.

He says he never gave his place in civil rights history much thought. "I was proud of what we did, but when I told people about it, they didn't believe me, so I stopped talking about it."

When he heard that the group was to be exonerated, "I thought it was joke," he said.

But sure enough, Ernest A. Finney Jr. - the lawyer who represented the men 54 years ago - stood before Judge John C. Hayes III - the nephew of the judge who sentenced the students in 1961 - two weeks ago to hear the charges dismissed.

"We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history," Hayes said in front of a packed courtroom.

Not exactly. Charles Taylor's history was altered. He never finished college, driven back home by hatred.

"I wish I stayed and kept being involved (in the civil rights movement)," he said. "I regret not staying with it."

Still, he has in place in history. Outside the restaurant that used to be McCrory's, a historic marker was put up in 2007. Inside, the names of the "Friendship Nine" are inscribed on the back of the restaurant chairs. There are 10 names - and Charles Edward Taylor is one of them.

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment