A group of South Carolina civil rights heroes had their moment in the sun on Wednesday morning, as their 1961 convictions for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter were “vacated, null and void, and set aside... dismissed with prejudice” in a Rock Hill courtroom.
“We cannot rewrite history but we can right history,” said Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes.
The Friendship Nine are guilty no more.
On Jan. 31, 1961, nine students at Rock Hill’s Friendship Junior College – David Williamson Jr., Willie T. “Dub” Massey, Clarence Graham, James Wells, Willie McCleod, Mack Workman, John Gaines, Charles Taylor and the late Robert McCullough – along with civil rights organizer Thomas Gaither were arrested for sitting at a lunch counter at the McCrory’s department store in downtown Rock Hill. The next day, they were convicted of trespassing, with attorney Ernest Finney at their sides.
Rather than pay the $100 bail, the men chose to spend 30 days doing hard labor on the York County Prison Farm. Only Taylor allowed the NAACP to pay his bail so he wouldn’t lose his athletic scholarship. The civil rights movement of “Jail, No Bail” was born.
On Wednesday, Finney, 83, who was the first black chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, stood and once again represented the nine, along with another four people who were arrested and jailed the next week after replicating the Friendship students’ activities.
Both Finney and the late Matthew Perry, who also represented the Friendship Nine, were civil rights heroes themselves, Hayes said. Perry later became a U.S. District Court judge.
“Let the decision of the court today show the resolve of South Carolina to work together, to learn together and to progress together and to ensure the promises set forth in our Constitution that all men are equal under the law,” Finney said, as he asked the court to vacate the sentences.
Moments later, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett not only echoed Finney’s desires that the convictions be vacated, but also spoke on behalf of the entire state.
“Allow me to extend my heartfelt apologies to each of you for what happened in 1961,” he said. “You are my hero.”
In his decision, Hayes, whose uncle originally sentenced the men back in 1961, wrote “(The Friendship Nine) were prosecuted solely based on their race... Such prosecution is on its face unjust under any definition.”
After Hayes read his decision, Brackett made an unusual request. Typically, he said, when a conviction is thrown out, a person’s record is expunged. But in this case, he, along with Finney and the Friendship Nine, thought it would be appropriate to leave their records as-is, so history would remember their courageous acts.
Hayes agreed, and said a copy of his decision would be attached to the court records from 1961. So for the rest of time, anyone who looks at the records will see the charges were thrown out.
In a news conference after the hearing, Clarence Graham, a Friendship Nine member who was 19 years old at the time of his arrest, became emotional as he talked about meeting a woman on Tuesday who was at McCrory’s on Jan. 31, 1961, when Graham and the others were arrested.
“She said, ‘I’m so sorry but I didn’t know what to do,’ ” he said.
Graham said the Friendship Nine’s legacy is far from finished. The group plans to continue to work for the advancement of equality and the betterment of society.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a famed civil rights activist and two-time presidential candidate who watched the hearing from Chicago, called the vacating of the Friendship Nine’s convictions “a story of redemption and reconciliation.”
“These sacrificial giants pulled down the ‘Cotton Curtain’ and built a bridge for the New South,” Jackson said of the men.
Between the news of the Friendship Nine and the movie, “Selma,” Jackson said a new generation of heroes is being introduced to America’s young people. People like the Friendship Nine are “the best representatives of our generation,” he said.
One of the highest-profile attendees in the courtroom on Wednesday was Dr. Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Bernice King was contacted by Kim Johnson, the author the children’s book, “No Fear For Freedom: The Story of the Friendship Nine.”
King called the hearing “a monumental day, for not just civil rights but human rights and human dignity.”
Vacating the convictions of the Friendship Nine would speak volumes to people demonstrating for civil rights and justice both in the United States and around the world, she said.
Both King and Graham emphasized that non-violence, the method King preached and the Friendship Nine followed, was the only way to bring about meaningful change.
“It’s a victory for nonviolence and an affirmation that nonviolence always, always wins in the end,” she said.