Friendship Nine's civil rights-era convictions overturned by South Carolina court

The men were the first to choose prison over fines for ignoring a segregation order and sitting at a whites-only lunch counter

It will be 54 years ago on Saturday when the ‘Friendship Nine’ walked into McCrory’s in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and took their seats at its whites-only lunch counter only to be arrested, convicted of ignoring a segregation order and thereafter sent to serve thirty days on the county prison farm.

Criminals, however, they are no longer. In an emotional session in Rock Hill’s courthouse early today the convictions of all nine men, so named because most of them attended the now shuttered Friendship College, were overturned and each man was legally absolved.

The sit-in on 31 January 1961 is still remembered as having given inspiration to non-violent protests that were to follow all across the South as the civil rights struggle raged in the early Sixties. The nine young men were the first in the movement to choose incarceration for their alleged crimes over fines.

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People take part in a civil rights 'sit-in' protest at the lunch counter at McCrory's in 1960. Eight Friendship Junior College students and a civil rights organizer were convicted of trespassing and breach of peace for staging a similar protest at the same lunch counter in 1961 (AP)

The survivors among the Nine came to court and listened as their convictions were rolled back by Judge Charles Hayes, the nephew of the judge who presided over their original trials. The court house itself is not far where McCrory’s used to be. And their lawyer today was the same man who defended them back then, Ernset Finny Jr, who was to rise to become the Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court.

“We cannot rewrite history,” Judge Hayes, told the court, “but we can right history”.

The motion to have the convictions reversed was first made by local prosecutor Kevin Brackett. “There is only one reason these men were arrested... and that is because they were black,” he noted. “It was wrong then, it’s wrong today.”

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Members of the 'Friendship Nine' gather at the municipal courthouse in Rock Hill, where their convictions were overturned (Reuters)

Among the men who is still living and who attended the session is Clarence Graham, 72. He said that neither he nor his friends had been out for “hero worship” either in 1961 or indeed now in spite of the renewed media spotlight on the case. “It wasn’t for any glory,” he said. “We were simply... students who were tired of the status quo, tired of being treated as second-class citizens.”

He said the case offered a lesson to those still fighting for equality in America. “Even though we were treated unjustly, still non-violence prevailed. You think we’re going to sit down and rest now? No, no, no. We’ve got to lead by example.”

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