Black civil rights protesters credited with reinvigorating the 1960s U.S. sit-in movement were absolved Wednesday by a South Carolina court of the convictions lodged against them 54 years ago after they dared to sit at a segregated lunch counter.
The men, known as the "Friendship Nine" because most were students at the now-closed Friendship College, knew they would be arrested when they took seats at the popular McCrory's store lunch counter in Rock Hill on January 31, 1961.
Found guilty of trespassing, they became the country's first demonstrators to choose to serve jail time rather than pay a fine for sitting at an all-white lunch counter, launching the "jail, no bail" strategy later adopted by other activists.
In a packed courtroom in Rock Hill on Wednesday, not far from the site of the historic sit-in, city and court officials agreed it was time for the record to show that the group's stand against racial injustice was not a crime.
Judge John C. Hayes III, a nephew of the judge who presided over the men's trials, signed an order vacating the convictions of the "Friendship Nine" and several other protesters who were arrested in Rock Hill in a show of solidarity with the men.
"We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history," Hayes said.
Seven of the group's eight surviving members — Robert McCullough died in 2006 — attended the hearing and were again represented by Ernest Finney Jr., a civil rights lawyer who went on to become the first black chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The men stood stoically, one by one, as another judge read aloud their names, charges and sentences from the original docket created at their trials on Feb. 1, 1961.
David Williamson, James Wells, Willie McCleod, Willie Thomas "Dub" Massey, Clarence Graham, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, Mack Workman and McCullough all served 30-day sentences at the county prison farm.
Several of the men have said the burdens of having a criminal record lasted far longer. They endured harassment from local police for participating in the sit-in and, in some cases, moved away from the city in order to get jobs.
Local prosecutor Kevin Brackett, who helped initiate the motion to clear their names, apologized to the men and said they deserved to be recognized as heroes.
He noted they did not want their arrests to be erased from public documents because they felt it was important that their actions be remembered.
"There is only one reason these men were arrested ... and that is because they were black," Brackett said. "It was wrong then, it's wrong today."
Graham, 72, said after Wednesday's hearing that the group sought no "hero worship," either in 1961 or now. "It wasn't for any glory," he said. "We were simply ... students who were tired of the status quo, tired of being treated as second-class citizens."
Their case offers a lesson to young people in the ongoing fight for equality, a struggle not lost on the men, he said.
"Even though we were treated unjustly, still, nonviolence prevailed," Graham said. "You think we're going to sit down and rest now? No, no, no. We've got to lead by example."