Columbia, SC (WLTX) - The first African-American chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, Ernest Finney, Jr. passed away Sunday afternoon.
Finney was 86 years old. He is considered a legend in South Carolina's civil rights movement.
"When I got the news last night I was really shocked," said Finney's friend and colleague Jim Felder.
Friends called Finney a trailblazer. He became a lawyer in South Carolina at a time when African Americans weren't even allowed in the bar association.
"He never gave up," Felder said.
Felder says Finney, like most African American lawyers in the civil rights era, fought for the rights of others even while living through his own injustice.
"Imagine a lawyer could not use the restroom in the courthouse," Felder said. "That's what he went through."
One of Finney's most notable cases was working on the Friendship 9, where a group of African-Americans who staged a sit-in at a lunch counter in Rock Hill were arrested and sentenced to jail.
"He told me, 'My philosophy in practicing law is, if the facts are on your side, argue the facts. If the facts are not on your side... just argue,'" Felder remembered of Finney.
"When I think of judge Finney I think of a man of integrity," said Mary Skinner-Jones, a former student.
Skinner-Jones says Finney taught her when she was in high school.
"When he walked down the hall, everybody scattered if they weren't doing what they were supposed to do," Skinner-Jones said.
"He had a quiet, forceful demeanor," said I.S. Leevy Johnson, who was a friend.
"He was not flamboyant, but when he walked into a room you would always recognize his presence," Johnson said.
Finney's list of achievements include election into the South Carolina House of Representatives, serving as South Carolina's first African American circuit court judge, and as chief justice of the South Carolina supreme court. Finney was elected chief justice in 1994, and retired in 2000.
"He has served his state in many ways and he will be missed," Felder said.
"We would have never achieved the degree of success in the civil rights movement but for lawyers like Ernest Finney," Johnson said.
Finney leaves behind a wife, three children, and five grandchildren.
A wake for Justice Finney will take place on Friday at Sumter's Morris College. His funeral is set for Saturday at Claflin University in Orangeburg.