The old men walked into the courtroom with halting steps, grayer and a bit slower than when they were young.
They had been hauled into a nearby courtroom here 54 years ago this week. That time, a white judge, B. Drennan Hayes, convicted them of trespassing for staging a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in this Southern textile town.
He gave the nine men a choice: a $100 fine or 30 days on the York County chain gang.
They chose the chain gang. So began the civil rights “jail, no bail” movement, which helped galvanize opposition to public segregation in the Jim Crow South.
On Wednesday morning, seven of those men faced the judge’s nephew, Judge John C. Hayes III. This time, Judge Hayes threw out their 1961 convictions as an overflow courtroom of blacks and whites erupted in a standing ovation.
“We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history,” the judge told the defendants, who minutes later rose unsteadily to acknowledge cheers from friends and strangers.
The judge’s ruling was a stirring rebuke to this city’s racist past. For Rock Hill, it was a belated gesture of reconciliation and an acknowledgment of its shameful treatment of its black citizens half a century ago.
For the former student activists, now in their 70s, it was vindication for a bold, youthful act of defiance that helped inspire the civil rights movement.
“My heart was leaping,” defendant Clarence Graham, 72, said minutes after Hayes vacated the convictions. “I can hold my head a little bit higher.”
The men — Graham, Robert McCullough, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, W.T. “Dub” Massey, James Frank Wells, Willie McCleod, David Williamson and Mack Workman — became known as the Friendship Nine, after the now-defunct Friendship Junior College most of them attended.
They were knocked off lunch counter stools by white police officers and dragged out of McCrory’s Variety Store in Rock Hill on Jan. 31, 1961. It was a year after the better-known Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C.
On the chain gang, the convicts defied their white jailers and sang songs in protest as they dug up dirt and stones. A 10th defendant, Charles E. Taylor, was tried before them and accepted an offer by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People to pay his fine, to avoid being stripped of an athletic scholarship.
The men’s convictions haunted them for decades. Graham, a retired social worker, said it complicated his efforts to find a decent job. They were abused and spat on by local whites and, as Graham put it, “called the N-word.”
Seven of the nine were in the courtroom Wednesday. McCullough died in 2006, and one defendant was unable to attend Wednesday’s hearing.
A clerk read from the original 1961 docket sheet, calling out each defendant’s name and their fate: “Sent to chain gang.”
The men appeared in court with the same lawyer they had in 1961 — Ernest A. Finney Jr., who later became the first black South Carolina Supreme Court justice since Reconstruction.
Finney, 83, a retired chief justice, rose slowly in court to move to vacate the convictions. “Justice and equity demand that this motion be granted,” he said.
Hayes told the men: “Those who, like the Friendship Nine, sat down at lunch counters were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and our most sacred values.”
York County Solicitor Kevin Brackett, a white man who was born four years after the sit-in, supported the defense motion.
After he was contacted last fall by Kimberly Johnson, a children’s author who wrote a book about the Friendship Nine, Brackett and Johnson worked to get the convictions erased, aiming for the 54th anniversary of the sit-in this week.
“There is only one reason these men were arrested and charged … and that is because they were black,” Brackett told the judge.
Then Brackett turned to the defendants sitting a few feet away and offered what he called his “heartfelt apologies.”
“Our community, our country, is a better place today because of what you all did,” Brackett said. “On behalf of the state, you are my heroes.”
Brackett said that vacated convictions are usually expunged but he asked to preserve them for their historical value. The judge agreed.
Rock Hill’s white mayor, Doug Echols, also spoke of the terrible injustice committed in 1961. “This history that is bent straight here … is what courage looks like when good people step forward to lead,” he told a standing-room-only courtroom of 250 people.
After Hayes’ ruling, the Friendship men were hugged and backslapped by supporters. One former convict burst out in the courtroom with a vigorous rendition of Sam Cooke’s 1960 ballad “Chain Gang.”
Graham wept as he described an elderly white woman who recently approached him at the lunch counter site, now called Five & Dime, to apologize for failing to intervene while at the counter that day in 1961.
While Graham, now a great-grandfather, said he felt vindication and relief, he said he also wished the ruling had come in 1968, when he returned from serving in Vietnam and couldn’t find a job. The men’s names were later engraved on stools at the sit-in site.
One of the Friendship Nine, Williamson, was asked whether he ever thought his name would one day be cleared. “Nope,” he said firmly. “But it’s never too late, and I’m grateful.”
Finney, the retired justice, sat quietly at the defense table as the defendants accepted congratulations. It was a momentous day, he said, and one he did not think he would see in his lifetime.
Finney was asked if he thought Rock Hill and the South had made significant strides toward true racial equality.
“We’ll see,” the judge said. “There’s still work to be done.”