Quietly on Wednesday morning in Rock Hill Municipal Court, Bill Spencer walked up to Ernest Finney and shook his hand. They exchanged few words.
Perhaps not much needed to be said.
It was just important to him, Spencer said, that Finney knew he was there.
In 1961, Finney – a civil rights attorney who would go on to be the first black justice on the state Supreme Court – represented the Friendship Nine. He defended the black men charged by Rock Hill police with trespassing after they peacefully protested racial segregation by sitting down at a whites-only lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill.
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Spencer, a 32-year-old junior lawyer at the time, helped represent the city of Rock Hill in 1961. His older brother, Charlie Spencer, was the lead prosecutor who brought the case against the Friendship Nine after their arrests.
Bill Spencer was in court with his brother on Feb. 1, 1961, when the Friendship Nine were found guilty. They chose a sentence of 30 days hard labor in prison rather than pay the $100 fine. The NAACP was ready to pay the Friendship Nine’s bail but the men refused on principle, creating a new tactic for the civil rights movement that would come to be called “Jail, No Bail.”
On Wednesday morning in that municipal courtroom, a Circuit Court judge declared the convictions “null and void,” calling the evidence used against the Friendship Nine “patently flawed and unjust.” A prosecutor apologized to them on behalf of the state of South Carolina.
Spencer, now 86, said vacating the Friendship Nine convictions was the right thing to do.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Spencer sat once again in a Rock Hill courtroom once again with Finney and the Friendship Nine. This time, he was in the audience.
Afterward, Spencer told The Herald that he was glad to see the Friendship Nine’s new day in court. The segregation law that sent them to jail, he said, “wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair.”
As city prosecutors, Spencer and his brother were doing their jobs to argue cases against people accused of crimes. In 1961, it was against the law for a black person to sit at a whites-only lunch counter.
At the time, the Spencer & Spencer Law Firm in downtown Rock Hill served as the city’s general counsel. The firm’s attorneys also worked as prosecutors in municipal court. Today, the city still contracts with Spencer & Spencer for legal services, but it employs separate full-time prosecutors.
Most official court records of the Friendship Nine’s 1961 convictions are gone. Spencer says he doesn’t recall much of the details that unfolded in court that day.
Segregation, though unfair, was the law of the land in South Carolina, Spencer said. For so long, “it was an accepted thing.”
At the time, he said, the men now known as the Friendship Nine seemed as typical any other defendant.
More than five decades later, the men of the Friendship Nine are thought of as anything but typical. They’re often called heroes for displaying peaceful civil disobedience that helped awaken society’s collective conscience to the injustice of racial segregation and discrimination.
In court on Wednesday, officials said they were righting a wrong derived from criminalizing the actions of the men who were challenging an unjust law.
Spencer, whose legal side prevailed in 1961 but was overturned on Wednesday, said the apology and the vindication for the Friendship Nine pleased him.