The eight black men sat in the courtroom at exactly 10 a.m. Wednesday. Shoulder-to-shoulder they sat – and it was Feb. 1, 1961, again.
White judge, white prosecutors. The black defendants lined up, terrified and courageous at the same time. The law written by whites for whites. The jail cells through the back hallway so close that in quiet moments when the doors were ajar the clang of the bars seeped in.
“My, my, this is court,” whispered David “Scoop” Williamson Jr. “Last time I was here, I was a jailbird. Teenaged criminal. Those cell bars, you never forget the sound. Hear it in your heart.”
So many people – mostly black, but not all – surged to get into the Rock Hill Municipal Courtroom that the fire marshal had to bar the door with burly cops. Hundreds waited to see what would happen to black men who had defied whites in the South five decades ago. Some stood, hands held over mouths. Many sat and listened, and waited patiently along with the black men.
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But the words that filled the courtroom 54 years later were different. No prosecutor or police officer was there to say these black men – tired of segregation, tired of having less dignity than dogs – had broken a law by sitting at a whites-only lunch counter on Rock Hill’s Main Street just a block away. No one was there to pronounce them guilty of trespassing.
On Jan. 31, 1961, nine Friendship Junior College students and a civil rights organizer were arrested after sitting down at the McCrory’s lunch counter on Main Street in downtown Rock Hill. They were convicted in court the next day.
On Wednesday, a white prosecutor and a white judge admitted, finally, that the offense these men were guilty of in 1961 was not trespassing, it was simply being black.
The white men, working in the same jobs as the men who enforced the laws behind segregation in 1961, said simply to the surviving members of the Friendship Nine, “I am sorry. We were wrong.”
No more would the official record, identifying them as “c/m” for colored male, read: “Charge: Trespassing. Trial: Guilty. Sentence: $100 fine or 30 days. Disposition: Sent to York County Chain Gang.”
The crowd of people living in 2015 stood and sat silently, shocked and appalled at what Rock Hill and South Carolina used to be.
But this day was not about the crowd who wanted to witness history, or the apologetic prosecutor and spectacular judge, both of whom spoke so eloquently and with real emotion about the law they have worked in for decades, how it was once unjust.
This day was about the men who helped change a nation by going to jail to show how much they loved their country. Men who all their lives bore the brand “criminal,” even as they fought in Vietnam, became successful lawyers and businessmen, preached from pulpits and helped mend broken kids from broken homes.
It was about one man whose widow stood in for him on Wednesday.
Mary McCullough stood like a queen. She did not cry. She beamed with pride. Her late husband, Robert McCullough, the unquestioned leader of the Friendship Nine protesters, died in 2006 at age 64. He died, according to the legal record, a criminal.
“He would have loved this,” Mary McCullough said. “He deserved this. They all do.”
As they did in 54 years ago, the defendants sat in a “U” formation around the defense table with their lawyer, described by the media and court documents in 1961 as “negro attorney from Sumter.” Retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney, now 83, his long white hair a regal lion’s mane, managed to stand with help from his prosecutor son.
Finney had come to ask a judge to say that the state that he has served most of his life was wrong.
He spoke with the gravelly voice of those who have been dragged, beaten, arrested and jailed for the crime of being black just like him. After graduating from law school, Finney had to serve dinner to white lawyers because black lawyers were banned.
“The insult these citizens endured,” Finney said. He paused, letting that sink in before speaking again.
“All men are equal under the law.”
The lion in winter, still roars.
James Wells sat in his wheelchair, a lifetime spent first as a soldier, then as a lawyer, trying uncountable cases in the same courtroom.
But not on Wednesday.
“Today, I am a defendant – again,” Wells whispered. “My actions brought me here. All of us.”
As was the custom in the 1960s, the trial of the Friendship Nine came the day after they were arrested, and they were found guilty before lunch was served in the jail.
All but one chose 30 days at hard labor – the chain gang, with real chains and bullwhips and solitary confinement and bread and water – to show America that they had the courage to stand against segregation. Up until that point in the civil rights movement, protesters had paid their fines and gone home after being arrested and convicted.
But nine of the men arrested in Rock Hill that day chose instead to stay for a month at the York County Prison Farm. That “Jail, No Bail” strategy reignited civil rights protests around the country.
Thomas Gaither, who was unable to attend Wednesday’s court hearing, was such a despised rabble-rousing black man in 1961 that state agents followed him and the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the front lawn. Kenn Gaither sat in for his father, and he had never been prouder.
Next to Williamson sat Charles Jones, a black protester from Charlotte, who, with Charles Sherrod from Georgia and two black women, came to Rock Hill in 1961 to get arrested and to show their support for the Friendship Nine.
Then there was Mack Workman, who left the South after college and moved to New York to get away from Jim Crow laws that told him he was not a man. Workman sat there, his face shining, and it seemed impossible that there was a time that South Carolina would ever have said that this social worker was not a man equal to any other.
“Been a long time to get back here to court,” Workman said. “Little different today, you could say.”
Then Willie McCleod, who tells anyone who will listen that racism is taught, not born.
Clarence Graham, who cried when telling about how, just a few days ago, he met a white woman who was at McCrory’s that day in 1961 and was ashamed that she did not intervene, that she did not scream at police and up to heaven that the way blacks were being treated was wrong.
W.T “Dub” Massey, teacher and preacher, who wanted so much for his friend, McCullough, to be there Wednesday.
“He recruited me,” Massey said. “I had my little life, but I went with these men, and they changed my life. And we changed the world – together.”
At the far end John Gaines, a retired lawyer, sat without a word. His life of courage spoke for him.
Behind them, Brother David Boone, the white Catholic clergyman, the only white person to stand with the black protesters in 1961. Boone, now 82 and fighting cancer and old age, smiled and said, “The right thing is always right.”
But 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett spoke Wednesday about “wrong.”
The law was wrong. The verdict was wrong. The city was wrong. The state was wrong.
So he was there to make it right.
He called the men “heroes.” He said he and America owe them our thanks.
Because they stood for all.
Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III – nephew of the Rock Hill city judge who sent the Friendship Nine to jail, the late Billy Hayes – ordered the convictions vacated because the evidence was flawed. Because the arrests were preposterous. Because of the illegality of laws that perpetuated segregation.
Then Judge Hayes said what needed to be said:
“These men were prosecuted solely based on their race.”
The hearing ended and these proud protesters, fathers and grandfathers, received a standing ovation from the white prosecutor, the white judge, and the crowd of black and white.
Media from across America in Rock Hill for the spectacle of a city and state admitting it was wrong to treat black men as less than men, filmed it all. The news spread across the world online and through social media. These men, as teens, changed the world, and now the world thanked them.
Williamson looked up into the crowd. The white and black, the young and old.
“We did it for all of them,” he said. “Not for us, for everybody. This is America.”
Wells rolled out in in wheelchair. The rest walked, slowly, as they are in their 70s. Mary McCullough walked out for her husband.
Graham, who spoke for the group, fielded a hundred questions from reporters until finally, the spectacle was over.
“We walk out of here,” he said, making his way to the door, “free.”