Five Decades After Civil Rights Arrests, Friendship Nine Convictions Thrown Out

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Five Decades After Civil Rights Arrests, Friendship Nine Convictions Thrown Out

'We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history,' Judge Mark Hayes said before signing the order that vacated the trespassing convictions

Five members of the Friendship Nine (from left), Willie Thomas Massey, Willie McCleod, James Wells, Clarence Graham, and David Williamson Jr., sit at the counter at the Five & Dine restaurant in Rock Hill, S.C., on Dec. 17. (Photo: Jason Miczek/Reuters/Landov)

As expected, a South Carolina judge has thrown out the convictions of the Friendship Nine, civil rights activists who were jailed in 1961 after a sit-in protest at an all-white lunch counter in the town of Rock Hill.

It took almost five and a half years for the nine African-American men, whose 'jail, no bail' strategy helped galvanize the national fight against racial inequality, to be exonerated.

"We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history," Judge Mark Hayes said before signing the order that vacated their trespassing convictions. Hayes is the nephew of the judge who sentenced the men in 1961.

"Today is a victory in race relations in America," Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., said at a news conference following the ruling. "It is a new day."

According to CNN:

The proceedings began 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 [pdf] 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.

The exoneration effort was spearheaded by writer Kimberly Johnson, author of the children's book No Fear For Freedom: The Story of the Friendship 9 as well as a musical about the men that opens in Rock Hill on Friday. Last year, she approached Kevin Brackett, the solicitor for York and Union counties, to see what could be done to clear their records.

"This is an opportunity for us to bring the community together," Johnson told the Associated Press before Wednesday's ruling. "To have the records vacated essentially says that it should have never happened in the first place."

The Rock Hill Herald reports:

During Wednesday’s hearing, Solicitor Kevin Brackett apologized on behalf of the state. Turning to look at the men, Brackett said "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 are black. "It was wrong then and it’s wrong today."

"What we have in this case is not something you can hold in your hand," Brackett added. "It's more of an evolving consciousness, and evolving awareness of the wrongfulness of the policies of that time."

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