'We Cannot Rewrite History, But We Can Right History'

A South Carolina judge vacated the convictions of the Friendship 9, nine black college students who dared sit at a whites-only lunch counter in 1961.

Jason Miczek/Reuters/The Atlantic

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.

Associated Press, February 21, 1961

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."

"Jail⎯No Bail" flipped the dynamic by which cities profited on the illegal arrests of civil rights activists and instead had to pay to confine and feed activists. It took the burden of payment off civil rights organizations in defiance of Jim Crow. Thomas Gaither, the Congress of Racial Equality activist who joined the eight Friendship students in the sit-in, described the strategy in an interview with South Carolina's ETV:

We’d had the sit-ins, and we didn’t have actually a large number of gains. We had people who were arrested. They went to jail, they paid their bail, they went back and often there were people who repeated this. Well, we thought it was time to raise the level of commitment to show how serious we were about trying to transform our society into a more just society.

Decades later, as the AP notes, Gaither's name along with the names of the rest of the Friendship 9⎯W.T. "Dub" Massey, Willie McCleod, Robert McCullough, James Wells, David Williamson Jr., John Gaines, and Mack Workman—are engraved on the restaurant 's stools where the man sat so many decades before. The trespassing charges will also remain, as the men requested that their records not be expunged by Wednesday's ruling.