Righting History, 54 Years Later

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On Jan 31, 1961, fifty-four years ago this week, nine young black men - eight students from nearby Friendship College and a civil rights organizer - sat at the whites-only counter of McCrory's five-and-dime in downtown Rock Hill, South Carolina and ordered burgers and cokes. They were asked to leave. When they refused, they were dragged out, arrested,  held in jail and eventually convicted of trespassing. In court, they were ordered to pay a $100 fine. They refused again, opting to serve 30 days at hard labor at a prison farm. The tactic ultimately dubbed "Jail - No Bail" helped galvanize civil rights protests across the South by halting the de facto subsidizing of oppression and for the first time putting the financial burden of illegal jailings on cities and counties, rather than civil rights organizations.


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On Wednesday, the eight surviving members of the Friendship 9 were back in a Rock Hill courthouse to hear their sentences vacated and their convictions overturned by Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III, the nephew of the judge who original sentenced them decades ago. The men were represented by Ernest Finney Jr., 83, who had defended their case 54 years ago and later served as South Carolina Supreme Court's first black chief justice. In his ruling for acquittal, Hayes argued the convictions had been “predicated upon values and beliefs that have since been deemed to violate the fundamental guarantees" of the Constitution. "We cannot rewrite history," he said, "but we can right history." 

The court vacated the convictions of all nine men: John Alexander Gaines, Thomas Walter Gaither, Clarence H. Graham, Willie Thomas Massey, Willie Edward McCleod, Robert L. McCullough, James Frank Wells, David Williamson Jr. and Mack C. Workman. Prosecutor Kevin Brackett noted he'd been approached earlier about pardoning the men, but resisted the idea: A pardon implies forgiveness, he said, “and these men did nothing wrong.” He offered the men a "heartfelt apology" on behalf of the state. He went on, "The record is abundantly clear: There's only one reason these men were arrested... and that is because they were black... It was wrong then. It was wrong today...Our community here and our country is a better place because of what y'all did."

The judge granted his request the trespassing charges not be expunged, as is usual, so that the actions of the Friendship Nine be remembered. Today, there is also a documentary about the men and the Jail No Bail strategy, their names are engraved on stools at the former McCrory's, and the town has put up a memorial to their "heroic actions." After the court ruling, Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, declared it "a victory in race relations in America...a new day” - albeit tirelessly, unconscionably, fifty-four years late.

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