Rock Hill rights wrong from 54 years ago

Wednesday, as an educator and representative of Banks Trail Middle School and the Fort Mill school district, I was honored to attend the hearing of the Friendship Nine in Rock Hill.

On Jan. 31, 1961, the lives of nine young men and the civil rights movement would change forever. On this day, 10 men marched from Friendship College to McCrory’s lunch counter in Rock Hill to start what would later be called the “Jail, No Bail” movement. These men with an attitude of peace and freedom sat at the all-white lunch counter to make public the injustice of the Jim Crow laws.

They were arrested and sentenced to a $100 fine or 30 days on the chain gang. Nine of them chose to take the jail sentence to bring to the public the inequality of these laws and help to spur change for all races. These men are now referred to in our history as The Friendship Nine.

Some 54 years later, on Jan. 28, a hearing in Rock Hill was held to vacate the charges of the Friendship Nine. Presiding over the session, and expected to clear the men’s records, was Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III, who is the nephew of the judge who sentenced the Friendship Nine to jail in 1961. He said, “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.”

Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit solicitor, is the one who started this move to have their charges vacated. He cited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his address to the court: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He publically apologized to the men on behalf of the state saying, “My heartfelt apologies for what happened to you in 1961 ... You are my heroes.” Brackett said the only reason the men were arrested is because they were black and followed with, “It was wrong then and it’s wrong today.”

After Brackett spoke, Ernest Finney, the original attorney for the Friendship Nine, represented his clients on this monumental day just as he did 54 years ago. The daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bernice King, was there also and was quoted as saying, “Today is a victory in race relations in America.”

As a teacher I was so excited to share with my students the information of the event and see them light up with questions and curiosity as they found out we had civil rights heroes in our own backyard. My students were so moved that our state would take action so many years later to right a wrong that happen to these nine men.

They also related this to themselves and felt encouraged about standing up for what’s right in their world now. This experience gave me renewed hope in the daily struggle of our world that there is good, and if we are willing to stand without fear for what is right, it will make a difference.

As I sat in this historic event, I thought of my home, the Fort Mill school district, and was so appreciative to be supported by being sent to witness this event by my administrator, Jason Johns. Banks Trail Middle School will be hosting the Friendship Nine on Feb. 27 as we honor local heroes in our Black History Celebration.