Judge Throws Out Convictions Of Civil Rights Pioneers, 'Friendship 9'

Jan 28, 2015
Originally published on February 3, 2015 9:16 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It was a day of historical reckoning in Rock Hill, S.C. A judge threw out the convictions of several civil rights pioneers who were jailed 54 years ago for a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It was standing-room only in the Rock Hill Courtroom where surviving members of the so-called Friendship Nine came before the bar of justice again, more than a half-century since they sat down at the all-white lunch counter at McCrory's Five and Dime Drugstore. One by one, the defendants stood as their old convictions were read into the record.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Docket number 412, prisoner Willie Edward McCleod. Offense - trespassing. Disposition - guilty, $100 or 30 days sent to the chain gang.

ELLIOTT: The young men from Friendship College, led by an activist from the Congress of Racial Equality, refused to pay their trespassing fines, the first to test a jail-no-bail strategy in the fight against Jim Crow. One of the Friendship Nine's original defense attorneys is retired Justice Ernest Finney, who later became the first African-American chief justice in South Carolina since Reconstruction. He represented them again today.

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ERNEST FINNEY: Today I am honored and proud to move this honorable court to vacate the convictions of my clients.

ELLIOTT: On behalf of the state, York County solicitor Kevin Brackett agreed to the motion.

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KEVIN BRACKETT: There is only one reason these men were arrested. There's only one reason that they were charged and convicted for trespassing, and that is because they were black.

ELLIOTT: Brackett said it's time for the state to say it's sorry for how the men were treated.

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BRACKETT: So allow me to take this opportunity to extend to each of you my heartfelt apologies for what happened to you in 1961.

(APPLAUSE)

BRACKETT: It was wrong.

ELLIOTT: Judge John Hayes was presiding.

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JOHN HAYES: We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.

ELLIOTT: Hayes' uncle was the judge who sentenced the Friendship Nine 54 years ago.

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HAYES: Now is a time to recognize that justice is not temporal, but it is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The defendant's convictions for trespassing in January of 1961 are vacated, null, void and set aside.

ELLIOTT: Seeing the judge sign the order was emotional for members of the Friendship Nine. Clarence Graham says they never expected such notoriety.

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CLARENCE GRAHAM: In 1961, we would go downtown - it wasn't for any glory. We were not looking for any hero worship. We were simply tired of the status quo, tired of being treated like second-class citizens, tired of being spat on, kicked, called the N-word, drinking out of colored water fountains. We got tired of that.

ELLIOTT: But as the first group of protesters to quit enriching the coffers of a segregationist government by paying fines, their decision to face jail time inspired other civil rights activists across the South. Charles Jones was a student in Atlanta at the time.

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CHARLES JONES: Having read about these young men - being so inspired, that we said we got to go there, we got to join them.

ELLIOTT: He and other activists came to Rock Hill and ended up in jail with the Friendship Nine.

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JONES: But we were singing that's the sound of the men working on the chain gang.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What were you singing? Do you remember?

JONES: (Singing) That's the sound of the men working on the chain - uh - gang.

ELLIOTT: Their convictions were cleared along with the Friendship Nine's, but the court records from 54 years ago will not be expunged. Clarence Graham says there's a lesson from Rock Hill today.

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GRAHAM: Fifty-four years later, we're proving you can be successful with nonviolence - nonviolence. Even though we were treated unjustly, still, nonviolence prevailed, and to the day that's our message to young people.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Rock Hill, South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.