ROCK HILL, South Carolina (CNN) -- A South Carolina judge on Wednesday threw out the convictions of the Friendship Nine, who were jailed in 1961 after a sit-in protest in Rock Hill, South Carolina, during the civil rights movement.
When 16th Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III announced the convictions and sentences were officially vacated, the 250 people in the York County courtroom broke into a standing ovation. Another 250 spectators looked on in two overflow rooms within the courthouse.
Prior to the proceedings, Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols told the crowd that the actions of the Friendship Nine that day “is what courage looks like when good people step forward to lead.”
Leaning on a quote from Robert F. Kennedy, who was attorney general at the time of the protests and arrests, Echols said, “Few of us will have the greatness to be in history, as the Friendship Nine have done, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events within our own actions and, by example, touch the lives of others so that in the total of all of those acts, it will be confirmed and recorded that justice is for all people, and that injustice must not be tolerated in any place at any time.”
The men, named after the Rock Hill, South Carolina, college that eight of them attended, were looking to make a statement about the plight of the segregated South. And that’s just what they did.
Lunch-counter protests had become the cause célèbre the year before, in 1960, just two hours up the road in Greensboro, North Carolina. African-Americans, many of them students, sought to break the barrier of segregated lunch counters by sitting in “white-only” sections.
On the morning of January 31, 1961, just after 11 a.m., the Friendship Nine arrived at McCrory’s 5-10-25 Cent Variety Store in downtown Rock Hill. They took their seat at the lunch counter and were promptly arrested for trespassing by police who had caught wind of the men’s plan and were already at the store waiting for them.
As the lunch-counter sit-ins spread from Greensboro to other parts of the South, protesters were arrested and charged. Civil rights groups had to pay the mounting bails and fines that the protesters were incurring.
The men of Friendship College wondered whether paying fines and bail—to the very people who were oppressing them, no less—was the best course of action. Rather than pay the $100 for their release, the men felt they could make a more profound statement by accepting the full punishment for trespassing: 30 days of hard labor.
The strategy, known as “jail, no bail,” would become a popular strategy in the civil rights movement
On Wednesday, the attorney who represented the men almost 5½ decades ago returned to court to have their names cleared. In a poetic twist, Judge Hayes, who presided over the hearing, is the nephew of the judge who originally sentenced these largely unsung civil rights heroes.
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