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Monday, May 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Civil Rights Protesters |to Have Arrests Erased

(CN) - Nine black men arrested and charged with trespassing when they tried to integrate a white-only lunch counter in South Carolina at the height of the Civil Rights era will soon see their criminal records vacated.

On Wednesday, Kevin Brackett, solicitor for South Carolina's 16th Judicial Circuit will formally ask a Rock Hill, S.C. municipal judge to expunge the arrests and convictions of the protestors.

The nine black men at the center of Wednesday's hearing were jailed after staging a sit-in at a segregated McCrory's lunch counter in Rock Hill in 1961. Theirs wasn't the first sit-in of the civil rights era. That distinction belongs to a protest staged by four black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College students who sat down at a segregated Woolworth's counter in Greensboro, N.C. a year earlier.

But the Friendship Nine, as the men came to be called because they were all students at Rock Hill's Friendship Junior College, were trailblazers nonetheless as they adopted a then-unheard of strategy of "Jail, No Bail."

By choosing jail over a fine or bail, they were able to greatly reduce the financial burden borne by civil rights groups providing scare bale money to sit-in participants. After the Friendship Nine were arrested on January 31, 1961, an subsequently sentenced to 30 days hard labor at the York County Prison Farm in South Carolina, their strategy was emulated throughout the south.

In an interview with Courthouse News, Brackett said he's been approached several times in recent years to do something about the convictions, but each time he struggled in deciding on an appropriate way to proceed.

"People would suggest things like getting a pardon for these men, but words like 'pardon' and 'expunge' are very specific legal terms ... a pardon, for instance, entails going to the governor and asking for forgiveness, and these guys didn't do anything wrong and have nothing to be forgiven for.

"So basically, that's how those conversations ended. I'd say, 'I'm willing to work with you,' but when a question is phrased a certain way, you get locked into the context, and I couldn't think outside the box."

Brackett's interest in the case was renewed by Kim Johnson, author of the book, "No Fear for Freedom: The Story of the Friendship 9." It was Johnson who suggested that perhaps there was a way to attack the underlying conviction.

"Once I started thinking down that trail, I realized that perhaps the most appropriate way to do this was to file a motion for a new trial based on 'after-discovered' evidence," Brackett said.

A motion for a new trial based on 'after-discovered' evidence is a motion that's typically used in cases where a DNA test of old evidence casts doubt on a criminal conviction.

"Here, we don't have a smoking gun like that," Brackett said. " But what we do have is a sea change in societal values between 1961 and today. In 2015 it is incomprehensible that somebody could be arrested and convicted merely for sitting at a lunch counter."

This isn't the first time Rock Hill and its residents have tried to make amends to the nine, known individually as John Gaines , Thomas Gaither, Clarence Graham, W.T. "Dub" Massey, Willie McCleod, Robert McCullough, James Wells, and David Williamson Jr.

In 2007, the City of Rock Hill unveiled an historic marker honoring the men on the spot where they were arrested 54 years ago. In addition, the men's names are engraved on the stools at the counter of Main Street's Old Town Bistro, the site where McCrory's once stood.

Of the nine, eight are still alive. Robert McCullough died on Aug. 7, 2006.

"Each of these men paid a price for these convictions, had trouble finding jobs and so forth over the years; it's exciting to be able to reach back through time and right a historic wrong," Brackett said.

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