ROCK HILL, South Carolina (CNN) — A South Carolina judge on Wednesday threw out the convictions of the Friendship Nine, who were jailed in 1961 after a sit-in protest in Rock Hill, South Carolina, during the civil rights movement.
“Today is a victory in race relations in America,” said Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said in a news conference following the ruling. “It is a new day.”
The prosecutor who pushed for this momentous day, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett of Rock Hill, cited King’s father when explaining to CNN on Tuesday why he was motivated to take up the cause of the Friendship Nine: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
The proceedings began at the Rock Hill Law Center with Municipal Judge Jane Pittman Modla reading from the original court record for each of the men. She asked each of the seven men in attendance — one has since died, while another had transportation issues — to stand as their names were called.
“Offense: trespassing. Disposition: guilty. Sentence: $100 or 30 days. Condition: sent to the chain gang,” she said for each of them, reading from the 1961 docket.
Retired state Supreme Court Justice Ernest Finney, who was the men’s defense attorney in 1961, entered the motion to have the sentences tossed out. The 83-year-old required help standing and propped himself on the table in front of him as he spoke.
“May it please the court, today I’m honored and proud to move this honorable court to vacate the conviction of my clients. These courageous and determined South Carolinians have shown by their conduct and their faith that the relief that they seek should be granted. I move for the convictions entered in 1961 to be vacated.”
Brackett joked that he would probably be best served letting Finney’s moving argument stand, but he was compelled to say why he agreed with him. One of the reasons is that the Friendship Nine deserved a “heartfelt apology,” which Brackett delivered on behalf of the state.
He went on to say, “The record is abundantly clear: There’s only one reason these men were arrested. There was only one reason that they were charged and convicted for trespassing, and that is because they were black. This could not happen today. It was wrong then. It was wrong today. These convictions, if they are allowed to stand, would be an offense to justice, and they must be vacated.”
Brackett closed by calling the men “my heroes” and extended his appreciation for their bravery: “Our community here and our country is a better place because of what y’all did. … It’s a better place for me, and it’s a better place for my daughter, and for that, I owe you my thanks.”
When Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III, the nephew of the judge who sentenced these largely unsung civil rights heroes almost 5½ decades ago, announced that the convictions and sentences were officially vacated, the 250 people in the courtroom broke into a 20-second standing ovation. Another 250 spectators looked on in two overflow rooms within the courthouse.
Many of those in attendance were old enough to have lived through the civil rights movement.
Prior to the proceedings, Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols told the crowd that the actions of the Friendship Nine that day “is what courage looks like when good people step forward to lead.”
Leaning on a quote from Robert F. Kennedy, who was attorney general at the time of the protests and arrests, Echols said, “Few of us will have the greatness to be in history, as the Friendship Nine have done, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events within our own actions and, by example, touch the lives of others so that in the total of all of those acts, it will be confirmed and recorded that justice is for all people, and that injustice must not be tolerated in any place at any time.”
The men, named after the Rock Hill, South Carolina, college that eight of them attended, were looking to make a statement about the plight of the segregated South. And that’s just what they did.
Lunch-counter protests had become the cause célèbre the year before, in 1960, just two hours up the road in Greensboro, North Carolina. African-Americans, many of them students, sought to break the barrier of segregated lunch counters by sitting in “white-only” sections.
On the morning of January 31, 1961, just after 11 a.m., the Friendship Nine arrived at McCrory’s 5-10-25 Cent Variety Store in downtown Rock Hill. They took their seat at the lunch counter and were promptly arrested for trespassing by police who had caught wind of the men’s plan and were already at the store waiting for them.
As the lunch-counter sit-ins spread from Greensboro to other parts of the South, protesters were arrested and charged. Civil rights groups had to pay the mounting bails and fines that the protesters were incurring.
The men of Friendship College wondered whether paying fines and bail — to the very people who were oppressing them, no less — was the best course of action. Rather than pay the $100 for their release, the men felt they could make a more profound statement by accepting the full punishment for trespassing: 30 days of hard labor.
The strategy, known as “jail, no bail,” would become a popular strategy in the civil rights movement