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Friendship 9 showed courage then, and humility today, as charges were overturned [Commentary]

The year was 1961 when eight students at Friendship College in Rock Hill, S.C., and a young activist with the Congress for Racial Equality staged a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter at the local McCrory's five-and-dime store. They were dragged out of the store, charged with trespassing and disturbing the peace and were sentenced to either a $100 fine or 30 days of hard labor on the chain gang.

The young men made history 54 years ago when they opted for 30 days on the chain gang instead of paying money to what they saw as a racist local government. Their "jail, no bail" stand at the height of the civil rights movement set a precedent and became a major strategy among protesters across the South.

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Like others, I had not heard of the Friendship 9, as they were called, but that changed on Jan. 28, when the men, now judges, lawyers and successful businessmen, were part of a historical event once again that received national attention. On that day, Judge John C. Hayes III, the nephew of the judge who originally sentenced the Friendship 9, overturned the charges against them, calling their sentencing "repugnant" and "flawed."

It was amazing to be at that hearing, feeling the intensity in the packed courtroom and seeing people standing in line hours before the doors opened, hoping to get a seat to witness an important piece of history. People of all ages and ethnicities attended, including the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Bernice King; and author Kim Johnson, who wrote a book about the Friendship 9, "No Fear For Freedom."

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I actually felt chills when the room erupted in applause before the hearing when Ernest Finney — the first African-American chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court since the Reconstruction Era and the attorney for the Friendship 9 in 1961 — entered the courtroom to represent the group once again. Now in his 80s, with help from his son, also an attorney, Finney stood proudly, and with eight of the surviving Friendship 9 members looking on intently, said, "Today, I'm honored and proud to move this honorable court to vacate the convictions of my clients."

The local prosecutor, Kevin Brackett, concurred and said in his opinion the only reason the Friendship 9 were arrested was because they are black. Brackett, turned and looked directly at the Friendship 9, sitting together on a front row, and said, "Allow me to take this opportunity to extend to each of you my heartfelt apology for what happened to you in 1961. It was wrong."

Friendship 9 members said they never thought they would live to see this day. Some said their hearts were racing as the order was signed, dismissing their sentences.

"Everything we went through has all come to full fruition," said Friendship 9 member the Rev. Willie Massey. "I'm so excited because we never felt guilty of anything."

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And the judge agreed, which is why prosecutors opted for overturning the charges versus pardoning the Friendship 9. Pardoning, as Brackett said, would imply that they were asking for forgiveness when they'd done nothing wrong.

Talking with the men after the hearing, they described Rock Hill, just minutes South of Charlotte, N.C., as a war zone back in the day when it came to racial issues. Which is why they said they felt the need to take their stand in 1961.

They told emotional stories of being placed in solitary confinement while on the chain gang. Clarence Graham shed tears as he recalled meeting a white woman last month who was working at the lunch counter when they were arrested for trying to integrate the McCrory's lunch counter.

"She said 'I was there but didn't know what to do,' " Graham said, tears running down his face. "She hugged me and we talked for half an hour. She said she was sorry and was so sincere."

That's one thing I observed about all of the surviving Friendship 9 members: they were not bitter but forgiving and glad to be able to tell their children and grandchildren that nonviolence works.

I was moved to see elementary and middle school children at the hearing, carrying the book about the Friendship 9 and getting the members to sign them under their photos in the book.

Hopefully their stories will go beyond Rock Hill and be taught in classrooms around the world. Their acts of courage and perseverance at such young ages, and their humility today, are to be admired.

There's a marker in Rock Hill on Main Street honoring the Friendship 9 and their names are on benches in the diner located on the site of the former McCrory's. Fitting tributes to these courageous men.

As Judge Hayes said during the hearing, "We can't rewrite history, but we can right history," and that's what thankfully has been done for the Friendship 9.

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