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York County prosecutor to vacate 1961 convictions of Friendship Nine civil rights protesters

It has taken almost 54 years, but the Friendship Nine soon will have another day in court. And this time, the black civil rights protesters who were dragged to jail in 1961 will not wear chains.

This time, the record will end with their convictions vacated.

In January, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett plans to convene a special court hearing to bring up “after discovered evidence” concerning the convictions of 10 black students from the former Friendship College in Rock Hill who were arrested in 1961. The charge was trespassing, after the men sat down at the McCrory’s department store lunch counter on Main Street. The men were dragged out of the restaurant and jailed. The next day, all 10 were convicted. The crime was being black and sitting at an all-white lunch counter.

Nine of the 10 chose a month at the York County prison farm rather than post the $100 fine. The “Jail, No Bail” slogan to fight Jim Crow was born. The protesters all went on to great lives.

But the convictions have never gone away.

Brackett said that in court in late January, he will ask for a new trial, then make a motion to have the case vacated. The after discovered evidence is that the laws making it a crime for blacks to sit at the lunch counter were illegal, so the case never should have happened. Brackett researched the law and came up with the plan, which which will show that the law was wrong and the men should never have been arrested and convicted in the first place.

The court hearing will keep history intact while acknowledging the wrong done in the legal system.

“The conviction all those years ago was an unjust conviction under an unjust law,” Brackett said. “This does not change the courage, the valor, of these great men who stood up against segregation. They changed history. They made history. Their courage will always be a badge of honor. But it, legally, will vacate the convictions. This will right a wrong in a way that what they did will never be forgotten.”

The Friendship Nine members have never formally asked a court to have their records cleared, although many have wondered why the state never did anything about it. The Herald in both 2009 and on the 50th Anniversary of the arrests in 2011 repeatedly brought up the unjust convictions and asked about a legal remedy to right the wrong. Last year, a children’s book about the Friendship Nine was published, and again the criminal convictions came up.

The January court hearing will alow the men to have the courts formally recognize the wrong done, while still keeping the arrests and convictions part of history for all to learn from. One of the Friendship Nine, Willie McCleod, has pushed for years for South Carolina to formally recognize the convictions as wrong. Yet McCleod was always concerned about history being erased if the record was expunged. Seeking a pardon would be asking for forgiveness, and these men never asked to be forgiven for fighting for what was right.

“My record for fighting segregation was always something I was proud of,” McCleod said. “I don’t want it erased. I want people to remember what we did and why we did it.”

The Friendship Nine protesters are McCleod, Clarence Graham, David Williamson Jr., John Gaines, Mack Workman, Thomas Gaither, James Wells, W.T. “Dub” Massey, and the late Robert McCullough. All except Great Falls’ native Gaither, a civil rights organizer, were teenaged students raised in Rock Hill attending the all-black Friendship College at the time of their arrests in 1961. All were honored decades later by the city of Rock Hill. Stools with their names on them can still be seen and sat on at the Five & Dine restaurant on Main Street in Rock Hill, where McCrory’s stood in 1961. A 10th man, Charles Taylor, was convicted but left jail after a few days because he would have lost a scholarship at school.

Dozens of Friendship College students had been arrested in 1960 and early 1961 while protesting segregation in downtown Rock Hill, but until the Friendship Nine, all paid fines and served little jail time. The decision by these men to accept jail, and the national outcry against segregation that followed, reinvigorated the civil rights protests around America.

In the hearing in January at the Moss Justice Center in York, Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III of Rock Hill – nephew of the original trial judge, the late Rock Hill City Judge Billy Hayes – will preside and make the judicial order to have the cases vacated. Retired S.C. Chief Justice Ernest Finney of Sumter – the first black on South Carolina’s Supreme Court who in 1961 was the defense lawyer for the Friendship Nine – will again represent the eight surviving Friendship Nine members.

The laws of 1961 that segregated whites and blacks at restaurants, bus stations, hotels, and schools were illegal. The men fought those laws and went to jail to expose the sickness of segregation to the rest of the South and America.

“There is no doubt that the laws were wrong then, and we went to jail knowing that we were right,” said Graham, one of the Friendship Nine. “It is true that my record of fighting for freedom is a badge of honor. This way seems to be that we can all keep that badge; that history will not be erased or forgotten.”

Williamson, another of the Friendship Nine, said the court hearing that will vacate the conviction is a “good thing” that will show the laws at that time were wrong. But the men never want people to forget what happened.

“It happened, we did what we believed was right for all people of all colors, and that will never change,” Williamson said.