Arrested for a lunch-counter sit-in, the men see their convictions overturned 54 years later

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
January 28, 2015 01:45 PM
Mary Ann Chastain/AP

In a packed, standing-room-only South Carolina courtroom, seven black men in their 70s stood – or raised their hands – as their names were called and the dockets from their Feb. 1, 1961 convictions recited: “Offense, Trespassing; Disposition, guilty; Sentence, $100 or 30 days hard labor. Conditions, sent to chain gang.”

Fifty-four years after those men, most of them students at Rock Hill’s Friendship College, served their 30 days for peacefully sitting down at a segregated lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina, their convictions were overturned Wednesday morning to a standing ovation.

South Carolina’s 16th Circuit solicitor, Kevin Brackett, offered the still-living members of the so-called Friendship 9 an apology on behalf of the Palmetto state. “The record is abundantly clear: The only reason these men were arrested is because they were black,” Brackett told Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes, III. “It was wrong then, it would be wrong today.”

Clarence Graham, one of the nine, said he hopes fresh attention to their sit-in will impress young black men and women today, in the age of Ferguson and Trayvon Martin.

Civil rights protestors stage a sit-in at the lunch counter in McCrory's in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 1960

“We understand the problems that you’re experiencing. We watch TV and the internet and we know,” Graham told reporters after the court hearing. “It devastates us. I get emotional about it. I cry. Because it’s painful. Protesting is fine. But my thing is organize, investigate, then protest. But do it in a nonviolent manner.”

“How lifted we are!” said Charles Jones afterward. Jones was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member who had come from Atlanta to join the Rock Hill protest in 1961. Weeping, Jones broke into singing Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang.”

“Can you feel it? Can you imagine? After all this time, here we are, before the globe, being respected,” Jones said. “And we never thought that would happen.”

It happened largely because of the work of children’s author Kimberly Johnson, who wrote No Fear For Freedom: The Story of the Friendship 9 and championed the cause of seeing the men’s convictions vacated.

“This is the day the Lord has made,” said Johnson, who attended the hearing with Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Our children are the ones who will benefit from this day … They will see that the universe is on the side of justice.”