Judge To Exonerate 'Friendship 9' Activists 54 Years After Arrest
"I was in that fourth chair because I can recall before my bottom touched that seat, they had me on the floor. And swooped me right out of the door, the back door. Dragged me out."
Nearly 54 years after their arrest, some of the first civil rights protesters to serve prison time for sitting at an all-white lunch counter were back in court on Wednesday. A judge in Rock Hill, S.C. cleared them of their convictions for trespassing.
In 1961, the group of students from Friendship College walked into McCrory's Five and Dime Drugstore and sat down in protest to legal segregation. Blacks were forbidden from sitting at the lunch counter, so they were quickly taken to jail. The young protesters, who became known as the Friendship Nine, were sent to a prison camp where they labored for 28 days.
These days, Clarence Graham is welcome at this lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill. The 72-year-old is a bit of a celebrity at the eatery, now called the Five and Dine. He still remembers when things were different.
"We were able to shop in the store, purchase what we want," he says. "But we couldn't sit down and order a drink, a Coke, a hot dog or anything because we were black."
Graham was 17 years-old at the time. He recalls the day: "I was in that fourth chair because I can recall before my bottom touched that seat, they had me on the floor. And swooped me right out of the door, the back door. Dragged me out."
The group stood trial on trespassing charges the next day. But, instead of paying a hundred dollar fine — which typically happened during civil rights protests — they tried a new strategy.
"Jail, no bail," Graham recites.
The Friendship Nine appeared in a Rock Hill courtroom again, Wednesday, after South Carolina children's book author Kimberly Johnson implored the county solicitor to erase their convictions. "This is something that needs to be rectified," she says.
Judge John Hayes accepted a defense motion to clear them, based on the theory they were convicted under unjust segregation laws. Hayes' uncle was the judge who sentenced the Friendship Nine to 30-days on a chain gang in 1961 when they refused to pay their fines – pioneering a "jail-no bail" strategy used in the civil rights movement.
"Now is the time to recognize that justice is not temporal but is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow," Judge John Hayes declared. "I therefore order that the defendants motion for a new trial based on after-discovered evidence is granted. The defendants convictions for trespassing in 1961 are vacated, null, void and set aside."
The county agreed to the defense motion under the same rules that would exonerate someone based on new DNA or other new evidence that casts doubt on the validity of the conviction.
"We don't have a DNA report. What we have in this case is not something you can hold in your hand," says Kevin Brackett, solicitor for South Carolina's 16th Circuit Court. "It's more of an evolving consciousness, and evolving awareness of the wrongfulness of the policies of that time. What flew in 1961 would never fly today."
Retired Justice Ernest Finney, the first African-American Chief Justice in South Carolina, was the Friendship Nine's defense lawyer. He made the motion to vacate the case: "Today I am honored and proud to move this honorable court to vacate the convictions of my clients."
He added: "Let the decision of the court today show the resolve of South Carolina to work together, to progress together, and to ensure the promise set forth under our constitution that all men are equal under the law."
For Graham, it's an acknowledgement of something the Friendship Nine have lived with for decades. "We were wrongfully arrested and imprisoned," he says.
Now, their records are clean.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.