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New day dawns in Rock Hill as Friendship Nine gather for breakfast at historic lunch counter

Fifty-four years ago, hostile hecklers pelted raw eggs on ten quiet men in front of McCrory’s lunch counter on Main Street in Rock Hill.

On Saturday, six of those men were served steaming hot scrambled eggs at the same lunch counter, with coffee, grits, bacon, sausage, biscuits and gravy.

Instead of angry men throwing wads of spit on them, the men entered the diner to high-fives and thanks, welcomed by police officers and Rock Hill’s mayor, Doug Echols.

They walked in and grabbed their seats – the same ones they quickly grabbed 54 years ago, now etched with their names – and friendly servers with hot cups of coffee greeted them with menus.

The former classmates, dubbed The Friendship Nine, along with a civil rights organizer, were arrested in 1961 for trespassing after trying to eat at McCrory’s. A judge convicted them the next day, and all but one opted to spend 30 days in jail instead of paying the $100 bail. The men served hard labor at the York County prison camp.

The incident started the “jail, no bail” strategy that reignited Southern civil rights protests.

A judge vacated the sentences Wednesday, ruling the arrests and convictions were based on illegal laws of segregation.

Saturday, six of the men and hundreds of supporters gathered at the former Friendship College campus at the corner of Black and Allen streets to commemorate the anniversary of the event.

Friendship Nine members Clarence Graham, W.T. “Dub” Massey, Willie McCleod, James Wells, David Williamson, and Mack Workman made the half-mile trek to Main Street, where members of the community, friends and family greeted them warmly before the men ate at the Five and Dine, which occupies the former McCrory’s.

John Gaines and Thomas Gaither were unable to attend Saturday’s event. Another member, Robert McCullough, is dead.

On the way downtown, they sang “This Little Light of Mine” and other songs, with supporters following them. Most of the men rode golf carts, except for David Williamson, who walked in front with family. Peaceful police officers dotted the streets.

Echols told the crowd, “We have made progress, but we still have a march to carry on.”

Sixteenth Circuit Court Solicitor Kevin Brackett, who took part in having the convictions overturned, said the men walked through a different city Saturday.

“These men have been waiting 54 years for breakfast,” Brackett said.

They took their seats, and most draped their coats on the backs of the chairs, covering their names. They all had one thing in common: They were there to be served a meal.

McCleod said he doesn’t know what he would have ordered in 1961 because they were so swiftly removed from their seats.

“I didn’t have a menu,” he said. “We didn’t get a chance to order anything.”

On the other end of the counter sat Kenneth Gaither, nephew of Thomas Gaither, taking his uncle’s place.

Kenneth Gaither sat in awe and said he didn’t realize the event would be so well attended.

“I really had to gather my emotions so I wouldn’t break down,” he said. “It’s an honor just to be in his place.”

He grew up hearing the stories, but hearing other people talk about the bravery was inspiring, he said.

“To have an intimate relationship with your heroes, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” he said.

For Massey, teaching future generations about the civil rights movement is what made him excited about the week’s events.

“This is a new day,” he said.