A South Carolina judge on Wednesday vacated the convictions of the “Friendship Nine” protesters who were arrested, jailed and sentenced to 30 days of hard labor in a chain gang for their part in a sit-in protest at the “whites only” counter of a Rock Hill, S.C. restaurant.
“Let the decision of the court today show the resolve of South Carolina to work together, to learn together, and to progress together to ensure the promises set forth in our Constitution: That all men are equal under the law,” said former South Carolina Chief Justice Ernest A. Finney, Jr., who served as the lawyer for “Friendship Nine” in 1961 and again in the proceedings on Wednesday. Finney later became South Carolina’s first African American chief justice in the post-Reconstruction Era.
“On behalf of the named defendants, I move for the convictions entered in 1961 be vacated and the court to issue an order affirming for good cause shown, that justice and equity demand the motion be granted,” he added.
The judge, John C. Hayes III, who is the nephew of the judge that delivered the 1961 sentence, agreed.
The proceedings, though symbolic, are a recognition of the critical role this sit-in protest played in the history of the civil rights movement. The “Friendship Nine” became the first Civil Rights protesters to refuse to pay bail and serve out their jail sentences. The strategy, “jail, no bail” helped to bring national attention to the plight of African Americans in the south.
Those convictions, South Carolina officials asserted today, were as unjust then as they are now.
“The record is abundantly clear,” noted Kevin Brackett, solicitor for York and Union county’s Sixteenth Judicial Circuit. “There is only one reason these men were arrested… and that is because they were black.”
“It was wrong then and it is wrong today,” Brackett said, before he apologized to the men on behalf of the state. “That conviction is an offense against justice.”
On the morning of Jan. 31, 1961, a group of young black men — most of them college students — walked from Friendship College to downtown Rock Hill, S.C., so that they could go to jail.
“The Friendship Nine,” as they came to be called, knew what would happen when they picketed outside of McCrory’s store and eventually sat at the whites-only lunch counter; as expected, they were dragged out of the five-and-dime and arrested.
But unlike countless other young black men and women of the civil rights movement, they didn’t intend to bail their way out of jail, where they had been locked up.
“We had people who were arrested — they went to jail, they paid their bail, they went back, and often there were people who repeated this,” explained Thomas Gaither, who was a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) at the time of their arrests. “Well, we thought it was time to raise the level of commitment to show how serious we were about trying to transform our society into a more just society.”
The nine men were convicted of trespassing and sentenced to 30 days of hard labor at a prison farm or a $100 fine. They took the time. (A 10th student, Charles Taylor, was arrested with the Friendship Nine did not go to jail because he feared losing his athletic scholarship; instead, the NAACP paid his fine.)
By becoming the movement’s first activists to be imprisoned for protests against segregation, the “jail, no bail” strategy that had been bandied around among civil rights activists for months finally took concrete form.
Now, nearly 54 years later, the eight surviving members of group saw their convictions thrown out during a court hearing in South Carolina on Wednesday.
“It’s been a long wait,” Clarence Graham one of the “Friendship Nine” told the Associated Press. “We are sure now that we made the right decision for the right reason. Being nonviolent was the best thing that we could have done.”
Adolphus Belk, a political science professor at Winthrop University, noted in an interview with The Washington Post that the Friendship Nine “created a new model where they altered the blueprint for the sit-in movement. They said, ‘We will instead do the hard labor, we will go to jail and in the process bring even more media attention and attention to our cause.'”
“If you pay the fine, you’re offering financial support for the system that you want to overturn,” Belk added. “Instead, you’re now placing the onus on the system itself to offer greater resources for your confinement.”
Gaither, Graham, Willie E. McCleod, David Williamson Jr., John Gaines, Mack Workman, James Wells, W.T. “Dub” Massey and Robert McCullough re-invigorated the civil rights strategy that would later produce some of the most meaningful and dramatic confrontations between defenders and enforcers of Jim Crow and those trying to dismantle it.
Activists had come to realize the waning effectiveness of paying bails and fines for arrests associated with their protests. The practice threatened to bankroll the corrupt criminal justice system in the segregated South and also bankrupt activists and families who were left to bear the costs.
But going to jail also had its consequences. Protesters risked losing their jobs and livelihood, losing sources of credit, or even being “disappeared” while in the custody of the state.
“It is a sound that you never will forget if you have been incarcerated,” Mack Workman, one of the Friendship Nine, said in a PBS documentary. “And when they closed that door and that key turned, you know you are in jail.”
Massey told Reuters that he did not discuss the experience, even with relatives, for years.
“I had fears about someone exposing me, saying: ‘Do you know what he did?'” Massey said.
More than a half-century later, the effort to publicly acknowledge their wrongful convictions has been spearheaded by author Kimberly Johnson, who felt compelled to act after writing a children’s book last year about the Friendship Nine.
“I feel all that I did was get the truth in front of people,” said Johnson told the Charlotte Observer. “And somebody listened.”
Brackett, solicitor for York and Union County’s 16th Circuit Court, agreed to bring the case before a judge at the end of this month.
“What these gentlemen did was take a courageous stand against an obnoxious and vile policy,” Brackett told Reuters. “It’s important that we publicly and legally recognize the wrongfulness of those convictions.”
The survivors, now in their 70s, are recognized as local heroes in Rock Hill, where stools at the new Five & Dine restaurant (which replaced McCrory’s) bear their names.
“These are grown men now in the twilight of their lives,” Belk noted. “The civil disabilities that they were made to suffer as a result of their actions, those effects can’t be undone.
“But they are very much concerned about their place in history and that they not be forgotten.”
Initially, the men were somewhat skeptical about an effort to wipe the arrest and jail time from their records — which might be seen as an effort to erase their sacrifice.
“My record for fighting segregation was always something I was proud of,” McCleod told the Rock Hill Herald last year. “I don’t want it erased. I want people to remember what we did and why we did it.”
On Jan. 28, in a courthouse not far from where they were arrested, some of the eight surviving Friendship Nine activists (McCullough died in 2006) will witness an effort to vacate their cases, which would not wipe the arrests and prison time from their records, but would overturn their convictions.
Though the act is entirely symbolic, coming decades after these men served their full jail sentences, Belk said it shows that Rock Hill officials recognize that “it’s never the wrong time to do right.”
“I want them to enjoy this moment,” Belk said. “They’ve lived long enough to go from being regarded as villains to being celebrated as heroes.”
[This post has been updated.]