Ernest Finney Jr., Rights Lawyer in ‘Jail, Not really Bail’ Case, Dies at 86

And their legal professional, Ernest A. Finney Jr., who had started practicing full time only in 1960 after doubling as a teacher and working part time in a restaurant to make ends meet, would finally be vindicated, too.

As a recently minted legal professional in the mid-1950s, Mr. Finney was not invited to the condition bar association convention because he was black. He were able to eavesdrop on the proceedings all the same – but only because he was functioning as a waiter at the time for the Sea Forest Resort in Myrtle Seaside, where the convention had been held.

He and his spouse would later represent thousands of other civil privileges defendants. Most lost their situations in South Carolina’s regional trial courts. All but two, he would later recall, had been absolved on appeal.


Mr. Finney continued to become South Carolina’s first black chief justice.

Fifty-four years after his clientele had been arrested in the McCrory’s sit-in, Justice Finney returned to Rock Hill, a former textile mill town, to reargue their case. One of the primary defendants had died, but most of the others joined him. One found its way to a wheelchair. Another walked with a cane.

Right now retired at 83, Justice Finney hobbled in to the courtroom on the arm of one of his sons. He rose gradually to address Circuit Courtroom Judge John C. Hayes III.

Using a tie emblazoned with the state’s palmetto and crescent moon logo design, Justice Finney appealed to the court to exonerate the men, who had been sentenced in 1961 simply by Judge Hayes’s uncle.

“Justice and equity demand that this movement be granted,” Justice Finney declared.

It was. In a bittersweet rebuke to the past, the convictions had been overturned. The sentences had been vacated. The prosecutor apologized.

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“We cannot rewrite history,” Judge Hayes said, “but we can right history.”

Justice Finney died on Sunday in Columbia, S.C. He was 86. His girl, Lynn C. Finney, referred to as Nikky, said the reason was problems of Alzheimer’s disease. He lived in Sumter, S.C.

Reared simply by a widowed father who took correspondence courses in law but became an educator rather, Justice Finney graduated from law school in 1954, the same year the United States Supreme Court delivered its landmark class desegregation decision, Brown v. Panel of Education.

At the time, only a handful of black attorneys were practicing in South Carolina, and blacks were excluded from juries.

In 1976, he was elected the state’s first black Circuit Courtroom judge. In 1985, he was known as by the Legislature to the Condition Supreme Court – the initially black to take a seat on that court since 1877, when federal troops had been finally withdrawn from the previous Confederacy.

When he was sworn in, Justice Finney expressed hope that his tenure on the subject of the state’s highest courtroom would have “a ripple effect, in order that not merely black children, but all kids from difficult circumstances, may grow up believing they can be what they want to be.”


In 1994, he hurdled another racial barrier when the overall Assembly elected him chief justice.

“I would like to be thought of as the man who did the very best he could with what he had for provided that I possibly could,” Justice Finney told The Augusta Chronicle in Georgia when he retired in 2000. “All people possess a responsibility to be the very best that we can be in whatever we perform, and by and large, if you do this, the color of your skin becomes less and fewer important.”

Ernest Adolphus Finney Jr. was born on March 23, 1931, in Smithfield, a town well-known for its ham, in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. His mom, the previous Colleen Godwin, passed away when he was 10 times old.

“I feel essential to try to do a little more with my life than I might possess otherwise,” he was once quoted as telling, “to justify my presence.”

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An only kid, he moved around Virginia and Maryland as his dad changed teaching jobs. They finally settled in Orangeburg, S.C., in 1946, when the elder Mr. Finney was known as dean at Claflin College (right now Claflin University). One continuous in their moves was the boxes of laws books his dad took with them.

“For some reason,” Justice Finney told The Associated Press, “I’ve always felt that if America was to surpass its promises to all people, I thought the law will be the basis for change.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Claflin in 1952, he received his laws degree from the South Carolina State University School of Law, the all-black counterpart of the University of South Carolina School of Law.

Besides his girl, a poet and English professor, Justice Finney can be survived by his wife, the former Frances Davenport; his sons, Ernest III, a previous judge and now a prosecutor in South Carolina, and Jerry, a lawyer; and five grandchildren.

Persuaded by more than a few civil rights employees to practice law regular, Justice Finney teamed up with one of these, Matthew Perry, who later became a government judge. By his count, Justice Finney represented some 6,000 clientele, including two black school students billed with disorderly conduct for wanting to worship within an all-white Presbyterian church.

Before learning to be a judge, he served in the Condition Legislature, where he drafted a bill to improve voter representation. As chief justice, he ruled in 1999 that all the state’s kids were entitled to a “minimally satisfactory education” in “adequate and safe facilities.”

“We knew the law at the time was against us, but we hardly ever shed faith that what we perceived to be justice would prevail,” he explained in 2000. “When I look at how far we’ve come today, I have to state, If there’s a man who ought to be impressed with the actual fact that the law works, I’m that gentleman.”

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