Judge proud of role in exonerating Friendship Nine in Rock Hill

As he wrote his order to undo a 54-year-old wrong, S.C. Circuit Judge John Hayes thought constantly about his Uncle Billy.

It was Billy Hayes, a lawyer and part-time municipal judge (city recorder), who convicted 14 civil rights demonstrators of trespassing for sitting down on Jan. 31, 1961, at an all-white lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill.

After they refused bail, he sentenced them to 30 days hard labor at the York County Prison Camp in York, applying the law of the day in a segregated city.

Last week, John Hayes, who had practiced law with his uncle and “surrogate father” for about 15 years, overturned those convictions – and at the request of the defendants and Kevin Brackett, the solicitor for York and Union (S.C.) counties, didn’t expunge their records.

He agreed they needed to be preserved in the court docket so that future generations wouldn’t forget “the courage” of the Friendship Nine.

Growing up in Rock Hill, the nephew never heard the family mention Uncle Billy’s part in the case that would ignite a new “jail, no bail” strategy and re-energize the nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1960s. Hayes didn’t even know his uncle had been the judge until Brackett asked him months ago if he’d be willing to take part in vacating the convictions.

Hayes knew Uncle Billy had been the city recorder in the early 1960s and began to research exactly when. Then watching the 2011 documentary “Jail, No Bail” by South Carolina ETV, he saw a photo of his uncle presiding over the courtroom.

He said his uncle, who died in 2002, would have been delighted that the court made amends.

“My father died when I was very young, and Uncle Billy was very impactful in my life,” Hayes said in an interview. “He had an obligation to apply the law as it was applied at that time. He was a sweet, dear man with a solid heart ... and I know he’d be 100 percent in my camp – and in the Friendship Nine’s camp. He would be pleased that it was being done and perhaps that I was the one getting it done.”

The courtroom proceeding last week was no theater, Hayes said.

He and Brackett firmly believed that the 14 had been wrongly prosecuted in 1961. Nine of the 14 were students at now-closed Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill, one was a Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) field secretary and four were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), including Charlotte lawyer Charles Jones.

“The order was heartfelt, and I believe on solid legal grounds,” Hayes said. “These individuals were exonerated. I genuinely believe they were not guilty of anything and were prosecuted because of the color of their skin. It was a correction of a wrong.

“So the proceeding was not symbolic – it was very real.”

For Jones, a civil rights warrior who saw the inside of many Southern jails during the movement, being exonerated by the nephew of the judge who’d sent the 14 to jail was “one of the most powerful moments of my life.”

“It was a moment where the circle came fully around,” he said. “Here was a white judge, whose uncle had sentenced us, and a prosecutor fully admitting – and apologizing – that what the state had done was wrong and they wanted to make it right.”

Strain on judicial system

By early 1961, the movement for equal rights had lost its punch.

A year earlier, college students in Greensboro had staged the first sit-in of a whites-only lunch counter. Similar protests followed in Charlotte and Rock Hill, where students picketed downtown establishments.

In Greensboro and Charlotte, department store managers relented that summer and opened lunch counters. Yet in Rock Hill, the sit-ins had accomplished little as lunch counters remained closed.

The movement was being drained by bail money. Tom Gaither, the CORE organizer, felt the strain needed to be placed on the judicial system by jamming jails with protesters.

He recruited nine students at Friendship Junior College and began training them in nonviolent protest.

On Jan. 31, the nine and Gaither sat at the counter of McCrory’s dime store in downtown Rock Hill and ordered coffee, Cokes and hamburgers.

Police quickly converged, arrested them and “dragged” them to a nearby jail, the protesters said.

Strategy begins to work

The next day, 54 years ago Sunday, they appeared before 40-year-old City Recorder Billy Hayes. Returning from World War II, where he piloted B-24s and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Hayes earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of South Carolina and had come home to start his practice.

By the time Gaither and the Friendship Nine were led into his municipal courtroom, Hayes was familiar with such proceedings.

Typically, when the demonstrators were given a choice of 30 days hard labor or a $100 fine, they chose to pay the fine. Had the 10 in his courtroom on this day done the same, their protest would have been long forgotten.

Coached by Gaither and represented by a 30-year-old African-American lawyer named Ernest Finney, they declined bail, except for one concerned he’d lose his athletic scholarship.

Finney, who would become the state’s first black supreme court justice, nearly won the case for his clients, arguing they hadn’t been given time to leave McCrory’s, according to the public TV documentary. But in the end, Hayes found them guilty of trespassing and sent them to the “county farm” in York for 30 days.

Five days later, SNCC sent Jones and three others to Rock Hill to support the 10. They sat in at a lunch counter, were arrested, refused bail and Hayes sent them to the prison, too.

Newspaper photos won sympathy around the country. Southern jails began to fill.

The latest apology

John Hayes, now 69, grew up near Winthrop College (now University), isolated from the protests. As a boy, he was “mystified” by the Jim Crow laws of segregation that forced separate water fountains, restrooms and accommodations.

He was 16 when the Friendship Nine were sent to do hard labor, but doesn’t recall ever witnessing the demonstrations downtown.

“I knew in my heart it was wrong to treat people that way, but I didn’t take an active stand,” he said. “I can’t say growing up that I had a great internal feeling of justice and fairness.”

After law school, he ultimately joined Uncle Billy’s practice, but doesn’t recall him ever mentioning those days. He’s been a circuit judge since 1991.

Hayes takes no credit for the idea of exonerating the 14. That came from author Kim Johnson, who wrote a children’s book about the Friendship Nine and approached solicitor Brackett to see what could be done to clear their records.

Rock Hill had already reached out to make amends, with city officials apologizing many times over the years. McCrory’s closed 18 years ago, but the building remains on East Main Street. So do the counter and stools, bolted in the same spot where the Friendship Nine were arrested. Outside, a plaque tells their story.

Hayes is proud to be a part of the latest – and perhaps most important – apology. In his courtroom last week were Gaither and many of the surviving Friendship Nine members, Jones and Finney, frail at 83, who once again stood up for their rights.

Hayes said the public exoneration that made national news could have a ripple effect for other Southern communities where similar wrongful prosecutions took place.

“This was not an isolated event. There are more opportunities for other communities to do something like this,” Hayes said. “Whether they’ll make an effort to right their history is up to them. But I think it would be very, very appropriate.”