The convictions of nine black men jailed for staging a sit-in at a Rock Hill, SC, segregated lunch counter in 1961 were overturned Wednesday. The men became known as the Friendship 9 because they were students at Friendship Junior College.
People of diverse ages and races packed the courtroom and two overflow spaces, as they anxiously waited for a hearing to begin, that was long overdue.
Ernest Finney was a young lawyer when he represented the Friendship 9 in 1961. He later became the first African-American chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court Reconstruction. On Wednesday, he as back in court representing the Friendship 9.
“Today I’m honored and proud to move this honorable court to vacate the convictions of my clients now known as the Rock Hill 9,” Finney said. “These courageous and determined South Carolinians have shown by their conduct and faith, the relief that they seek should be granted.”
Prosecutor Kevin Brackett concurred with Finney’s request and also took those in attendance back to 1961. He said the students were not violent and only wanted to be served. It was clear to him the only reason the Friendship 9 were arrested was because they are black. At one point, Brackett, turned and directly addressed the eight surviving men.
“So allow me to take this opportunity to extend to each of you my heartfelt apology for what happened to you in 1961. It was wrong,” Brackett said.
Ten students were arrested. They were charged with trespassing when they refused to leave the all-white McCrory’s lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill. Instead of paying a $100 fine that they saw as financing a racist government, nine of the the students served 30 days on a chain gang. The 10th paid the fine because his scholarship was at risk. The Friendship 9 spurred the "Jail, No Bail" strategy used during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Judge John C. Hayes, III, whose uncle issued the original ruling against the students, called the convictions "repugnant and flawed" in dismissing them.
“We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history,” Judge Hayes said. “The defendant’s conviction for trespassing in Jan 1961 are vacated, null void and set aside. Today is Jan. 28 and I am now signing the order and that is done.”
The courtroom crowd stood and applauded. The eight surviving members of the Friendship 9 joined in, nodding their heads and smiling. Some, like Friendship 9 member Rev. Willie Massey doubted this day would come.
“It’s all come full fruition and we’re here, only one of us passed away, Robert McCullough, the one that convinced me I needed to go to jail and we’re excited,” Massey said.
Friendship 9 member Clarence Graham recalled an incident this week when a white woman approached him after seeing him interviewed for a television program.
The woman told him she was at McCrory's on the day of the sit-in, said "I was there but didn’t know what to do," Graham said as tears ran down his face. "She hugged me and we talked for a half an hour. She said she was sorry. She was so sincere.”
The sentences of four other activists were also dismissed. They traveled to Rock Hill to participate in sit-ins after hearing about the Friendship 9. One was Charles Jones of Charlotte. He sang "Working on the Chain Gang” as he explained his emotions.
“I’m so full…Lifted we are, can you imagine after all this time and here we are before the globe being respected and we never thought that would happen,” he said. “We believed but we never imagined at this moment and time and place in York County, Rock Hill, SC.”
Rev. Bernice King, the daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called the hearing and its outcome monumental.
“It’s a victory for nonviolence and affirms that nonviolence always wins in the end,” King said.
At least 300 attended the hearing. Some came a couple of hours before the courtroom opened to make sure they got seats. They waited in long lines just outside the courtroom’s doors, sharing stories and expressing their pride in the Friendship 9. They said the wait was worth it.
Numerous activities are planned to celebrate the dismissal of the Friendship 9’s convictions. There will be a play, a march and breakfast this weekend at a diner on the site of the McCrory’s where the Friendship 9 were arrested.