We mere mortals will never comprehend the discipline, courage, patience and sheer intellect it took to be Ernest Finney Jr.
Men like him come along once in a generation, if we're lucky, and there's probably no one in America who fully compares to …
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Men like him come along once in a generation, if we're lucky, and there's probably no one in America who fully compares to him as a civil rights leader, a jurist and as a black Southern man just trying to navigate the world.
The abundant, remarkable stories and accolades are everywhere this week, including a long, powerful tribute in The New York Times about the "Friendship 9," found here.
There was also a strong editorial tribute to him in The Charleston Post and Courier, found here.
For me, growing up in Sumter knowing and actually talking to a man like Ernest Finney Jr. was something I never took for granted. It was always a thrill to see him, and it's only as I've gotten older that I can truly appreciate the magnitude of his life's work and his lasting impact on Sumter, on the state of South Carolina and on this entire country.
He was a giant, and he was always on the front lines as a national leader dealing with the complex racial issues our country is still trying to make sense of today.
I came across the following "Letter to the Editor" while doing research in 2011 for a panel discussion I hosted called "Sumter and the Civil Rights Movement," which was part of the South Carolina Humanities Festival that year. The program included Chief Justice Finney, Bishop F.C. James, Hubert D. Osteen Jr., Dr. Charles "Pap" Propst, Colleen Yates, Julia Wells and moderator Jack Bass.
Among other issues, the panel members shed light on how Sumter somehow avoided much of the violence that plagued so many cities across America, and it was abundantly clear that Judge Finney was a big reason for that because of his strong relationships with both black and white leaders in Sumter. In the midst of society's turmoil and animosity, he was always a guiding force for reason and for the good of all people.
This is what he wrote 53 years ago in his hometown newspaper at the height of the Civil Rights Movement:
As an individual I wish to personally commend the Sumter Daily Item for its editorial entitled, "Commendable Action," which appeared in The Item of Tuesday, July 7, 1964. I believe this editorial will go far to help make the period of transition now occurring in our community more palatable to all parties concerned.
I hope that The Item will continue to assert its influence for the good and progress of this county and city. It is my firm conviction that if all of the leaders of Sumter would take a forthright stand for law, order and human dignity, our community would enjoy a period of progress unparalleled in its history.
All the Negro citizens of Sumter seek is their full rights as citizens and taxpayers in employment, education, housing and public accommodations. In other words, we desire to live as free and full citizens of our city, county and state.
We are aware that the opportunities now available do not constitute a one-way street and we stand ready to shoulder the responsibilities of full citizens.
Graham Osteen is Editor-At-Large of The Sumter Item. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GrahamOsteen, or visit www.grahamosteen.com.
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