More than a half-century after they were arrested and sentenced to hard labor for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter in South Carolina, a group of African-American student protesters known as the "Friendship Nine" had their convictions overturned and sentences vacated Wednesday.
The moment was met with applause and a standing ovation in the court room.
Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III made the ruling. "We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history," the judge said. He then signed the order, and the prosecutor apologized to the men. Hayes is the nephew of the judge who sentenced the "Friendship Nine" to jail in 1961.
All eight surviving members of the "Friendship Nine" attended the morning hearing in a municipal courtroom in Rock Hill, South Carolina. They were represented in the hearing by Ernest A. Finney Jr., the same man who defended their case 54 years ago. He went on to become the first black chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court since Reconstruction.
In 1961, the eight college students and one civil rights organizer were convicted of trespassing and protesting at McCrory variety store in Rock Hill. The men's refusal to pay bail money into the segregationist town's city coffers served as a catalyst for other civil disobedience. Inspired by their courage, demonstrators across the South adopted their "jail not bail" tactic and filled jail cells. The media attention helped turn scattered protests into a nationwide movement.
Unbeknownst to the demonstrators in Rock Hill, they would be credited by historians for devising a strategy that breathed new life into the civil rights movement. Instead of paying bail to get out of jail, nine of the ten demonstrators arrested at McCrory's became the first sit-in participants to insist on actually doing their jail time.
The men's names are engraved on the stools at the counter of the restaurant on Main Street, now called the Old Town Bistro. A plaque outside marks the spot where they were arrested.