The state of South Carolina (S.C.) has a history of trying to correct its civil rights wrongs. For example, a Democrat and a Republican governor have apologized for the 1968 incident in which state troopers fired on black student protesters and killed three persons at South Carolina State University.Rectification continues as convictions against nine “sit-in” demonstrators are erased.
Known as the Friendship Nine because most of them attended local Friendship Junior College (now defunct), the demonstrators who were male protested segregation laws on January 31,1961 by sitting at a “Whites Only” lunch counter in McCrory’s Variety Store in Rock Hill, S.C. They were knocked off the lunch counter stools by white policemen and dragged out of the store. Arrests followed and they were convicted of trespassing and breach of peace. Given a choice of 30 days in jail or a $100.00 fine, the Friendship Nine chose jail and served a month of hard labor on the chain gang.
On January 28, 2015, 54 years after these events, a motion to have the convictions vacated was entered by the Friendship Nine’s 1961 attorney, 83 year old retired S.C. Supreme Court Justice Ernest Finney, the first black on the Court since Reconstruction. Judge John C. Hayes, III, announced that the convictions and sentences were officially vacated and the 250 people in the courtroom responded with a 20 minute standing ovation.
Prosecutor Kevin Brackett apologized to the men saying, “Sometimes you just have to say you’re sorry.” One of the Friendship Nine, 72-year-old Clarence Graham, said they never felt guilty of anything. “We did the right thing for the right reason”, he said. At a press conference Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. pronounced the ruling a victory in race relations.
Because of their historical value the records will be vacated but preserved rather than expunged. When voiding the convictions, Judge Hayes, nephew of the judge who sentenced the Friendship Nine said, “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.” And by this action he did.