Eight of the little known, but historic group of men, the Friendship 9, had their convictions dismissed today by South Carolina judge, Mark Hayes. The momentous decision took 54 years! The Friendship 9 were all college friends who were arrested and jailed for 30 days in 1961 for trying to participate at a sit-in protest. Hayes said before the emotional announcement that, “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.”
The Friendship 9 are local Southern legends for engaging in the Civil Rights Movement. Their name derives from Friendship Junior College, the school where eight of the 10 men attended. On January 31, 1961, they planned a sit-in at the downtown spot McCroy’s 5-10-25 Cent Variety Store in Rock Hill, SC. Sit-ins were occurring in other Carolina towns, most prominently in Greensboro, NC for racially segregating its customers and Rock Hill was no different. When the Friendship 9 arrived, they were able to sit for a short time and order their lunch, but police shortly arrived on the scene and arrested them for trespassing.
Their next move, before being fully charged, would initiate the “jail, no bail” option that many Civil Rights activists would exercise in their arrests. “Jail, no bail” was a way of activists sending a message to the law and media that they were not backing down from their decision to protest, and also save their equal rights community leaders and family from paying fines, which sometimes got hefty.
Instead of paying the $100 fine to be released, the Friendship 9 chose to stay in jail, and did 30 days of hard labor at York County Prison Farm. It was a tough time for them, but their bravery inspired others across South Carolina and beyond to join sit-ins. Soon, local jails were filling up with headstrong activists that had also chosen to use “jail, no bail.”
The Friendship 9 were able lead normal lives and get jobs after having been jailed, but the convictions of the case loomed over their heads. The silver lining for them was that they gained a lot of support and respect over the years and were exalted as martyrs for American freedom. In 2007, the same McCroy’s counter that they were taken from to be arrested, cemented their legacy by engraving all ten of the men’s names on stools. Today, McCroy’s is now called Main Street’s Old Town Bistro. In 2009, a White man named Elwin Wilson (a man who tried to help the police in arresting the Friendship 9 by pulling one of them off a stool) met up with a few of the Friendship 9 at Old Town Bistro and apologized for his behavior.
In 2011, the fight to get the Friendship 9 case overturned by the prosecutor who pushed for this, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett. Five years later, over 250 people, including Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, were in attendance in a South Carolina court room to hear the Friendship 9’s names finally cleared on January 28, 2015. Seven of the men were there, as one has since died, and another couldn’t make it on time.
Earnest Finney, an 83-year-old retiree and the first Black chief justice of South Carolina’s Supreme Court, began the proceedings on behalf of the men (he was their attorney back in 1961) and spoke in front of Judge Hayes:
“May it please the court, today I’m honored and proud to move this honorable court to vacate the conviction of my clients. These courageous and determined South Carolinians have shown by their conduct and their faith that the relief that they seek should be granted. I move for the convictions entered in 1961 to be vacated.”
Finney was then succeeded by Brackett, who delivered an apology from the state of South Carolina that the Friendship 9 should’ve received 54 years ago:
“The record is abundantly clear: There’s only one reason these men were arrested. There was only one reason that they were charged and convicted for trespassing, and that is because they were black. This could not happen today. It was wrong then. It was wrong today. These convictions, if they are allowed to stand, would be an offense to justice, and they must be vacated.”
Brackett closed by calling the men “my heroes” and extended his appreciation for their bravery: “Our community here and our country is a better place because of what y’all did. … It’s a better place for me, and it’s a better place for my daughter, and for that, I owe you my thanks.”
After some final words from Judge Hayes and the official news of the convictions dismissed, the courtroom cheered and gave a standing ovation. It took too long for this piece of great news to be released, but we’re grateful that eight of the men are still with us to receive the justice they very much deserve. King, like a pure reflection of how her parents would’ve perceived the news, said during a non-related press conference that “Today is a victory in race relations in America. It is a new day.”
The names of all the original Friendship 9 men are listed below:
Willie Edward McCleod
James Frank Wells
Clarence Henner Graham
David “Scoop” Williamson
Mack Cartier Workman
Willie Thomas “Dub” Massey
Thomas Walter Gaither
John Alexander Gaines
Charles Edward Taylor
Robert Lewis McCullough (he passed away on August 7, 2006)