‘Friendship Nine’ Convictions Vacated After More Than 50 Years

By Sheryl Estrada

In 2007, members of the Friendship Nine stand at an historical marker in Rock Hill, S.C. Photo courtesy of FriendshipCollege.org

Justice has been served more than a half-century after courageous students were sent to jail for taking a stand.

On Wednesday, Jan. 28, almost 54 years to the exact day the Friendship Nine were arrested, their convictions and sentences for trespassing and protesting were officially vacated during a formal hearing at Rock Hill Municipal Court in South Carolina.

Named the Friendship Nine because eight of the nine Black men were students at the former Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill, they were arrested Jan. 31, 1961, for sitting at the McCrory’s whites-only lunch counter.

After being found guilty, the men accepted a sentence of 30 days of hard labor on a chain gang, instead of paying the $100 bail.

“They changed the model of the civil-rights movement,” Adolphus Belk Jr., a Professor of Political Science and the Director of the African American Studies Program at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, told DiversityInc.

He explained that after the anti-segregationsit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960 the method spread through the Carolinas, the South, then nationally. Only a year later, however, he said it was a “waning tactic.”

After protestors were arrested for trespassing and sent to jail, they would have to pay bail to be released. That became very costly to the movement with protestors having to ask organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP and even churches and family members for financial help.

Belk explained that a $100 fine in 1961 is equal to about $800 today.

“The Friendship Nine reasoned: ‘Rather than paying a fine to support a system we were trying to dismantle, we will go to jail,'” Belk said.

The men were the first to implement a strategy called “Jail, No Bail,” which Belk says energized the sit-in strategy.

“If you look at the timeline of sit-in demonstrations, after that, it takes off,” he commented.

The strategy brought more media attention to the civil-rights movement and influenced other college-age people around the country, like Diane Nash, Charles Sherrod, Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson and Charles Jones, to organize sit-ins in the same manner.

Belk was present at Wednesday’s court hearing, and he made it a point to observe the crowd.

“A lot of people came out because they wanted to bear witness to history,” he said.

It’s been reported there were 250 people in the courtroom and another 250 spectators in the overflow area.

Belk said the courtroom was standing-room only, as were the rooms set up for overflow. The crowd was multi-generational, from those the same age as the Friendship Nine to young children accompanied by their parents.

Ernest A. Finney Jr., now retired, is the firstBlack Supreme Court Justice appointed to the South Carolina Supreme Court. He represented the Friendship Nine at their original trial and was again their attorney at Wednesday’s hearing.

“This was an important bookend to his legal career,” Belk commented.

He also noted that when 16th Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III announced that the convictions and sentences were officially vacated, many in the room were visibly emotional.

“[Hayes] is the nephew of the man who sentenced them to a $100 fine or 30 days of hard labor,” Belk said. “Mr. Clarence Graham spoke for this morning on behalf of the Nine after the court proceeding concluded.”

Other members of the Friendship Nine also present were David Williamson Jr., Willie T. “Dub” Massey, James Wells, Willie McCleod, Mack Workman, John Gaines, Charles Taylor. Absent was the late Robert McCullough.

Normally when a record is vacated, the records on the case are destroyed. However, Belk said they were informed the Nine want their history to be saved and used as a teaching tool on the civil-rights movement.

Belk offered that many young people involved in current national protests over what they consider “terrible policing in respect to Black and Brown communities,” are using tactics from the 1960s movement as well as new methods.

“They’re pursuing new tools including social media to connect with people who want to be involved in the struggle for justice in this era,” he said.

Watch a 2011 Friendship Nine mini-documentary produced by The Rock Hill Herald in celebration of the 50th anniversary of “Jail, No Bail.”

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