Special to The Chronicle from the Carolina Panorama
South Carolina lost one of its most important and historic citizens on Sunday when former South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney Jr. died. He was 86.
Ernest Finney Jr. moved with his family to Orangeburg, SC at a young age. He graduated from Wilkerson High School before attending Claflin for his undergraduate studies. He graduated from Claflin in 1952 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science. He enrolled in the South Carolina State College School of Law, earning his law degree in 1954.
Armed with a law degree but unable to find work as a lawyer, Finney Jr. moved to Conway and became a teacher at Whittemore High School. He would also supplement his income by waiting tables and teaching veterans it read. Ultimately, Finney Jr. didn’t see much future in Conway. After five years he moved his family, which included his wife Frances and their three children (Chip, Jerry and Nikki) to Sumter.
In 1960 Finney Jr. set up his law practice in Sumter. He was also able to find a position at Morris College teaching one course a week to supplement his income. He got involved in the civil rights movement, gaining a reputation as an outstanding defense attorney and civil rights advocate. He and his good friend Matthew Perry, who was Chief Council of the NAACP in the 1960s, estimated that they represented as many as 6000 clients who were ensnared in the legal system as a result of their actions in support of civil rights initiatives. Ernest A. Finney Jr. said “I have never known abject poverty, but I have known segregation in its worst form. I therefore believe the Law is absolutely necessary to protect the rights of all citizens.”
In 1963 Finney Jr. served as chairman of the SC Commission on Civil Rights, serving in the vanguard of the movement to advance the cause of racial justice. After the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 65 passed through Congress, it looked to Finney that folks in this state were finally ready to do some business. He felt that Black folks needed to be involved in politics, and that he was crazy enough to think that he might be the man to make a run for a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives. On his third attempt, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1972. Subsequently he was appointed to be a member of the House Judiciary Committee, becoming the first Black on this key committee in modern times. He was a charter member of the Legislative Black Caucus, and served as its Chairperson from 1972 thru 1975. He was elected judge of the Third Judicial Circuit in 1976, becoming South Carolina’s first Black circuit court judge.
In 1985 Ernest A. Finney Jr. was elected as an associate justice of South Carolina Supreme Court — becoming the first Black American to sit on the state’s highest court in the Twentieth Century. The “crowning jewel” of his political career occurred on May 11, 1994, when Ernest Adolphus Finney Jr. was elected Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court — the first Black American to serve as Chief Justice in the state’s history. Judge Finney would retire from the Supreme Court in 2000.
After retiring from the court, Finney served one year as the interim president of South Carolina State University in 2002 before returning to his private practice.
In retrospect the Judge states, “I didn’t have any idea that the people of this state would have been so kind and considerate to me or afforded me the opportunity,” said Finney. “I had lots of people who questioned my ability to do something because nobody that looked like me had ever done it before.”