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James Wells, attorney known for civil rights protest, dies

ROCK HILL (AP) James Wells, a prominent Rock Hill attorney and member of a South Carolina civil rights protest group known as the Friendship Nine, has died.

Monique Ramseur with the Robinson Funeral Home confirmed that Wells died at his home Sunday at age 77.

Wells spent a month in jail in 1961 after he and eight other black men were charged with trespassing at a whites-only lunch counter in Rock Hill, The Herald of Rock Hill reported.

The men, who were attending Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill, chose to spend a month in jail rather than pay a fine in what was called the “Jail, no Bail” movement. Their time on a chain gang in York County encouraged protesters to stay in jail to fight segregation, Jim Crow laws and other forms of racism.

The convictions of Wells and the other members of the Friendship Nine were overturned in 2015. York County prosecutors apologized to the group for their arrest and time in jail.

“Jim Wells was one of our quiet leaders, an inspiration to all of us,” said David Williamson, another member of the Friendship Nine. “He was so smart and gentle. A great, great man.”

Wells and other members of the Friendship Nine are honored with stools at the former lunch counter where the protests took place. There also are signs and markers about the group around the city.

“Jim Wells was a friend of mine my whole life, said Willie McCleod, another member of the group. “He believed in what we were doing back then, and was willing, like all of us, to go to jail for what was right.”

Wells eventually went on to graduate from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte before going on to law school at the University of Illinois. He practiced in Columbia, before returning to Rock Hill, where he grew up, to open a solo general practice firm. He worked there until his retirement.

Ramseur did not know how Wells died. She was meeting with family members July 9 to make arrangement for the funeral.

Wells, an Air Force veteran, is the third member of the group to die. Robert McCullough died in 2006 and Clarence Graham died in 2016.

He told The Herald in 2011 his rationale for participating in the protest.

“It was clear to all of us that segregation was unjust, unfair, and wrong. None of us wanted to go to jail for a month, but the protests showed people what the real truth was in Rock Hill,” he said. “What we did, hopefully it reminded young people afterward, and still does, that one has to sacrifice for the rest of society to change and become better for all people.”

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