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

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

As a newly minted lawyer in the mid-1950s, Mr. Finney had not been invited to the state bar association convention because he was black. He managed to eavesdrop on the proceedings all the same — but only because he was working as a waiter at the time for the Ocean Forest Hotel in Myrtle Beach, where the convention was being held.

He and his partner would later represent thousands of other civil rights defendants. Most lost their cases in South Carolina’s local trial courts. All but two, he would later recall, were absolved on appeal.

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Ernest A. Finney, right, with the civil rights activist James Farmer in 1982.

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Afro American Newspapers/Gado, via Getty Images

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

Fifty-four years after his clients were 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 original defendants had died, but most of the others joined him. One arrived in a wheelchair. Another walked with a cane.

By now retired at 83, Justice Finney hobbled into the courtroom on the arm of one of his sons. He rose slowly to address Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III.

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

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

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

“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 daughter, Lynn C. Finney, known as Nikky, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He lived in Sumter, S.C.

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

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

In 1976, he was elected the state’s first black Circuit Court judge. In 1985, he was named by the Legislature to the State Supreme Court — the first black to sit on that court since 1877, when federal troops were finally withdrawn from the former Confederacy.

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

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Ernest A. Finney Jr., left, the lawyer in the 1961 “Friendship Nine” case, with three of them, Willie Edward McCleod, second from left, Mack C. Workman and David Williamson Jr. in Rock Hill, N.C., in 2015.

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Megan Gielow for The New York Times

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

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

Ernest Adolphus Finney Jr. was born on March 23, 1931, in Smithfield, a town famous for its ham, in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. His mother, the former Colleen Godwin, died when he was 10 days old.

“I feel a necessity to try to do a little more with my life than I might have otherwise,” he was once quoted as saying, “to justify my existence.”

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

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

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Claflin in 1952, he received his law 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 daughter, a poet and English professor, Justice Finney is survived by his wife, the former Frances Davenport; his sons, Ernest III, a former judge and now a prosecutor in South Carolina, and Jerry, a lawyer; and five grandchildren.

Persuaded by several civil rights workers to practice law full time, Justice Finney teamed up with one of them, Matthew Perry, who later became a federal judge. By his count, Justice Finney represented some 6,000 clients, including two black college students charged with disorderly conduct for attempting to worship in an all-white Presbyterian church.

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

“We knew the law at the time was against us, but we never lost faith that what we perceived to be justice would prevail,” he said in 2000. “When I look at how far we have come today, I have to say, If there’s a man who ought to be impressed with the fact that the law works, I’m that man.”

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