Black civil rights protesters who helped reinvigorate the 1960s U.S. sit-in movement against segregated lunch counters will appear in a South Carolina court on Wednesday to be celebrated instead of criminalized for standing up to racial injustice.
A judge is expected to vacate the 54-year-old trespassing convictions of the “Friendship Nine,” a group of mostly students at the now-closed Friendship College who agreed to risk arrest by sitting at the McCrory’s five-and-dime store lunch counter in Rock Hill on Jan. 31, 1961.
Hauled to jail and quickly found guilty, they became the first U.S. civil rights protesters to opt to serve jail time for sitting at an all-white lunch counter, helping launch the “jail, no bail” strategy that became a model for other activists.
“It breathed new life into the sit-in movement,” said Adolphus Belk Jr., director of the African-American studies program at Winthrop University in Rock Hill.
The surviving members of the group will again be represented by Ernest Finney Jr., a civil rights defense lawyer who went on to become chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court before retiring in 2000.
Finney’s motion, which is backed by local prosecutor Kevin Brackett, argues the trespassing convictions would not have occurred under current views on race and equality.
“Allowing these convictions to stand today would be equally abhorrent,” said the motion filed on Monday.
The group’s records will still reflect their arrests but will no longer show they were guilty of a crime.
David Williamson, James Wells, Willie McCleod, Willie Thomas “Dub” Massey, Clarence Graham, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, Mack Workman and Robert McCullough all served 30-day sentences at the county prison farm. In recent interviews, several of the men said the burdens of a criminal record lasted far longer.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem; Editing by Eric Walsh)