Less than two weeks ago these powerful words were uttered by Bernice King, the great Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter, in a courtroom just down the road from our law school. In this same courtroom, even the presiding judge, Judge John C. Hayes III, announced: “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.”
What happened in the courthouse to illicit such powerful statements? A group of young men, known as the “Friendship Nine,” were vacated from their convictions of over fifty years ago. The Friendship Nine was made up of David Williamson, James Wells, Willie McCleod, Willie Thomas “Dub” Massey, Clarence Graham, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, Mack Workman and Robert McCullough. On January 31, 1961, these eight young black men from Friendship College, along with Civil Rights activist Gaither, carried out a sit-in at a lunch counter of the five and dime store in Rock Hill, SC, now the site of the Five & Dine. All nine were charged with misdemeanor trespassing charges.
The Friendship Nine’s sit-in quickly became a hallmark for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, as they initiated the “Jail No Bail” protests nationwide. This form of protest means that jail time is chosen over paying court fines. The Friendship Nine were sentenced to 30 days of shoveling sand at a prison camp. The idea that these nine clean-shaven young college men were shoveling sand in prison, sparked a movement across the South. Suddenly, there was a reinvigorated effort to end segregation, and to do so by not just paying the monetary consequences that challenges to the law would impose.
The Friendship Nine has a very special quality to them. Not only did they reinvigorate the movement across the South, but when these sentences were recently vacated, even the courtroom players were symbolic: Judge Hayes is the nephew of the judge who handed down the original sentence; Ernest A. Finney, Jr., the original lawyer who defended the case on behalf of the Friendship 9, came back and represented them again; and the prosecutor for the State, Kevin Brackett, apologized profusely on behalf of South Carolina.
Along with the court’s multiple statements made regarding the importance of “righting” history and vacating these judgments, the court is allowing this case to live on. Every state has some kind of recordkeeping system in place that destroys criminal records after a certain number of years. For this case in particular, however, Mr. Brackett asked that these records be maintained so that the men would be remembered in history forever. When consenting to this request, Judge Hayes stated, “This will remain part of our history as corrected.” We, in our own experience here at the Clinic, have run into more than enough destroyed records issues when trying to help people seek relief of their past convictions. The fact that these records are being maintained shows the true importance and value the State of South Carolina has placed on the case of the Friendship Nine.
Stay tuned… We are working to cover this impactful story further!