Nine black men arrested for integrating a whites-only South Carolina lunch counter 54 years ago may be heroes in the historic record, but in the record of the law they are still convicted trespassers.
That criminal record will soon be erased.
On Wednesday, a prosecutor is expected to ask a judge to vacate the arrests and convictions of the men known as the Friendship Nine.
The men say that brings both relief and a hope for the future.
The eight students at Rock Hill’s Friendship Junior College — Willie McCleod, Robert McCullough, W.T. “Dub” Massey, Clarence Graham, James Wells, David Williamson Jr., John Gaines and Mack Workman — were led by Thomas Gaither, who came to town as an activist with the Congress of Racial Equality.
About a year had passed since the sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, helped galvanize the nation’s civil rights movement. But change was slow to come to Rock Hill. They decided to act together, getting arrested in February 1961 for ordering lunch from a whites-only counter at McCrory’s variety store.
Convicted of trespassing and breach of peace, the men opted for a month’s hard labor in a chain gang rather than allow bail money to be posted for them by civil rights groups. They did not want to contribute to the coffers of segregationists.
That decision drew national headlines, garnering the group the name the “Friendship Nine” and setting the standard for a “jail, no bail” policy emulated by other protesters around the South.
Author Kim Johnson took an interest in the men’s story, studying their case and publishing a book entitled “No Fear For Freedom: The Story of the Friendship 9” last year. After doing some research, Johnson went to Kevin Brackett, the solicitor for York and Union counties, to see what could be done to give the men a clean slate.
“This is an opportunity for us to bring the community together,” Johnson told The Associated Press. “To have the records vacated essentially says that it should have never happened in the first place.”
On Wednesday, Brackett will argue a motion to vacate those convictions before a Rock Hill judge who is expected to do just that.
It comes too late for McCullough, who died in 2006. But some of the others returned to town ahead of the hearing to reflect on their experience, telling the AP they hope their actions can still have an impact.
“It’s been a long wait,” Graham said. “We are sure now that we made the right decision for the right reason. Being nonviolent was the best thing that we could have done.”
The men’s names are engraved on the stools at the counter of the restaurant on Main Street, now called the Old Town Bistro. A plaque outside marks the spot where they were arrested. And official and personal apologies have been offered to the men over the years.
In 2009, a white man named Elwin Wilson who tried to pull one of the protesters from a stool nearly 50 years earlier returned to the same counter, meeting with some of the men. They forgave him.
Massey said he has no regrets.
“Everything that happened, happened for a reason,” he said. “We have to continue what we’re doing. If we’re backing off from what we’ve done, then there’s a problem here.”
And although their records will soon be clean, the men hope their commitment to nonviolence can remain an example for people protesting various issues today.
“Maybe it might change some of their minds about some of their actions,” Graham said. “Until the hearts change, there won’t be any changes. We still insist that nonviolence is the way to go.”