by: Greg Suskin Updated:
ROCK HILL, S.C. - The convictions of nine South Carolina black men who integrated a whites-only lunch counter during the height of the civil rights movement were tossed out Wednesday during an emotional hearing before a packed courtroom.
"We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history," Judge Mark Hayes said as he made the ruling for the men known as the Friendship 9. Those in court clapped and cheered.
York County Solicitor Kevin Brackett apologized to the men, eight of whom were in court. The ninth has died.
"Sometimes you just have to say you're sorry ... my heartfelt apologies for what happened in 1961," Brackett said.
Police arrested 10 men more than 50 years ago when they sat at a whites-only lunch counter in Rock Hill. One of the men, Charles Taylor, posted bail so he would not lose his Friendship College scholarship. The remaining eight students and a college adviser became known as the Friendship 9.
The men said they had no hard feelings toward Taylor when they were arrested in 1961 and have no hard feelings toward him now.
The men made history when they chose to spend 30 days in jail instead of paying a $100 fine.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Bernice King, spoke after the men’s convictions were overturned. She said Wednesday was a victory for nonviolence, dignity and race relations in America.
Bernice King also said although her father did not mention the men by name, he did speak about them, referring to them as the college students.
“Thank God they get to spend the rest of (their lives) in dignity,” Bernice King said.
READ MORE about the Friendship Nine
Kimberly Johnson, who authored a book and created a musical about the Friendship 9, also spoke in the courtroom Wednesday. She said children will benefit from the actions of the men, as well as the court’s historic ruling.
“We are examples of the ordinary becoming extraordinary,” Johnson said.
Johnson began a conversation with officials in the fall about overturning the Friendship 9’s convictions. Brackett told the media January seemed like an appropriate time because it was the anniversary of the group’s arrest.
CLICK HERE for our raw interviews with four of the men
Brackett proposed the men’s convictions not be expunged, but instead that the records stay in Rock Hill so students that visit see the dockets.
Channel 9 sat down with four of the nine at the restaurant where they were arrested 54 years ago.
Only four were able to attend because one has passed away. Another was ill. A few others have wives who are chronically ill.
PHOTOS: Friendship 9 changed history 54 years ago in Rock Hill
The names of the Friendship 9 are now engraved on the seats in the restaurant.
“I can't wait until Wednesday comes and I can take the stripes off my back,” said Friendship 9 member David Williamson.
On Friday, the musical based on the historic moment will open at the Emmett Scott Recreation Center in Rock Hill.
JOIN the conversation on Twitter with #Friendship9.
Community witnesses historic moment
The fire marshal had to close the doors before the ceremony started as hundreds packed into the courtroom, overflow room and even the lobby.
The convictions of nine South Carolina black men who integrated a whites-only lunch counter during the height of the civil rights movement were tossed out Wednesday during an emotional hearing before a packed courtroom.
The historic moment was captured on countless cellphone cameras as people cheered when the convictions for the Friendship 9 were tossed out.
Tiffany Hefney said it's like watching members of her family get the justice they deserve.
"They were friends of my dad and so to see them stand up for justice, it's a good thing," Hefney said.
Dora Saunders came to see an old wrong made right.
"I just never knew what these men had done, to make things better for me," she said. "I'm so proud of them."
A South Pointe High School English class stood in the packed room to watch history unfold. Tenth grader Tandril Chisholm said it became real to her.
"I saw people getting emotional and it made me understand how much this was important to our history." Latisha Howze, also in 10th grade, said she was honored to be there.
"I felt happy for them because they went through a lot," she said.
Vincent James was a young child in 1961 and too young to take part in civil rights protest and sit-ins.
"To allow people to be freed of something that they were not guilty of, just for sitting down at a restaurant. I think it's good," James said.
After the 30-minute ceremony was over and the convictions against the Friendship 9 were vacated, few people left. Most stayed to watch them speak to reporters and answer questions about the meaning of the day.