COLUMBIA, S.C. — Nine Black men arrested for integrating a Whites-only South Carolina lunch counter 54 years ago may be heroes in the historical record, but in the record of the law they are still convicted trespassers.
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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 a sense of relief as well as a feeling of hope as they look toward the future.
Willie McCleod, Robert McCullough, W.T. “Dub” Massey, Thomas Gaither, Clarence Graham, James Wells, David Williamson Jr., John Gaines, and Mack Workman were arrested in February 1961 for ordering lunch from a Whites-only counter at McCrory’s variety store in Rock Hill. The protest came around a year after a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, that helped galvanize the Civil Rights Movement.
Convicted of trespassing and breach of peace, the men, eight of whom were students at Friendship Junior College, opted for a month’s hard labor rather than allow bail 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 that was 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 said in a recent interview. “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. This past week, as they sat in the same building where they were arrested in 1961, a few of the men reflected on their experience, saying they hoped their actions still had an impact decades later.
“It’s been a long wait,” Graham said during a phone interview with the Associated Press. “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.”
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 to ask the Nine for their forgiveness.
The men’s names are engraved on the stools at the counter of Main Street’s Old Town Bistro, the site where McCrory’s once stood. A plaque outside marks the spot where they were arrested.
Reflecting on the experience, Massey said he feels 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, regardless of the issue at hand.”