Civil Rights in Columbia

Convictions of S.C. protesters to be vacated

Saying that allowing the 1961 convictions of black protesters of segregation to stand any longer is “abhorrent,” retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney will return to Rock Hill on Wednesday for a court hearing during which the convictions of the Friendship Nine will be vacated.

The 10 a.m. hearing at Rock Hill Municipal Court, expected to draw a national audience, will be broadcast on networks across the United States.

Finney, the first black justice on the State Supreme Court, was the lawyer for the protesters from all-black Friendship Junior College who were arrested Jan. 31, 1961, for sitting down to eat at a whites-only lunch counter at McCrory’s on Main Street in downtown Rock Hill.

In a new court filing that is part of the historic overturning of the case, Finney described the segregation laws and customs that separated whites and blacks at that time in schools, restaurants and other public places as “repugnant” and “inconsistent with any notion of equality.”

Nine Friendship students – David Williamson Jr., Willie T. “Dub” Massey, Clarence Graham, James Wells, Willie McCleod, Mack Workman, John Gaines, Charles Taylor and the late Robert McCullough, all Rock Hill natives – were arrested and convicted, along with civil rights organizer Thomas Gaither from Great Falls, who already had graduated from college.

They were given the choice of paying a $100 fine or spending 30 days in jail at hard labor.

Up to that point in the civil rights movement, protesters had paid their fines and gone home after being convicted.

But nine of the men arrested in Rock Hill that day chose instead to stay for a month at York County’s prison farm. That “Jail, No Bail” strategy reignited civil rights protests around the country.

Four black protesters from other states – Ruby Doris Smith, Diane Nash, Charles Sherrod and Charles Jones – came to Rock Hill shortly after the convictions in 1961. After their arrests, they chose to spend a month in jail to show their support for the Friendship Nine. They also will be exonerated in Wednesday’s hearing.

Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett will support Finney’s motion, and Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III – nephew of the original trial judge – will order that the convictions be vacated.