Fifty-four years ago this week, nine young black men sat down at the whites-only counter of McCrory's five-and-dime store on Main Street in the town of Rock Hill, South Carolina. After ordering burgers and cokes, the men were asked to leave; after they refused to leave, they were arrested for trespassing.
The Civil Rights Movement was, relatively speaking, in its infancy at the time. Less than a year after the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Friendship 9 were arrested on the same day that James Meredith submitted his college application to then-segregated Ole Miss.
On Wednesday, the eight surviving members of the Friendship 9⎯most of the nine men had been students at nearby Friendship College in 1961⎯were back in a Rock Hill courthouse to see their sentences vacated and their convictions overturned. "We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history," Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III told the courtroom to high applause as he threw out the cases⎯a poignant flourish given that Hayes' uncle had originally sentenced the men in 1961.
As NBC News noted, the men "were represented in the hearing by Ernest A. Finney Jr., the same man who defended their case 54 years ago," who later served as South Carolina Supreme Court's first black chief justice since Reconstruction.
The saga of the Friendship 9 hadn't ended with their convictions. When the court ordered the men to pay a $100 fine, they refused, opting instead to spend 30 days in jail rather than have the NAACP pay their fee, a tactic that was dubbed "Jail⎯No Bail."