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The “Friendship 9” Who Sat At A White-Only Lunch Counter Have Been Cleared

The men who participated in a South Carolina sit-in were sentenced to 30 days hard labor in 1961

Friendship Nine members Clarence Graham, Willie Thomas Massey, David Williamson Jr., James F. Wells and Willie E. McCleod (L-R) stand in front of the renamed Five & Dine diner in Rock Hill, South Carolina, on December 17, 2014 (JASON MICZEK/Reuters/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

In 1961, McCrory’s five and dime store in Rock Hill, South Carolina, had a lunch counter where only white people were allowed to sit. On January 31 of that year, nine young African American men, eight from the nearby Friendship Junior College and one activist with the Congress of Racial Equality, took their seats at the counter. Clarence Graham, one of the students, told NPR’s Debbie Elliot, "I was in that fourth chair. 'Cause I recall before… my bottom touched that seat, they had me on the floor and swoofed me out that door. Dragged me out." 

The Friendship Nine—as they came to be called—were arrested and convicted of trespassing and breach of the peace. Instead of paying the $100 fine, these nine took the sentence of 30 days hard labor in a prison camp. They called it the "jail, no bail" strategy. Their protest wasn’t the first sit-in, but that strategy gained traction. It "resonated beyond South Carolina and galvanized what had been a hodgepodge protest movement," reports the Christian Science Monitor

“It didn’t make sense to violate the law and then put money right back into the system,” Thomas Gaither, one of the students, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Now, 54 years later, a re-trial was called. A white prosecutor brought the case before a judge once again and asked that the charges against the Nine be vacated. The case was revived after Kimberly P. Johnson, who wrote a book about the case, campaigned for their names to be cleared. The prosecutor, Kevin Brackett, told the New York Times that he had thought of getting a pardon, but that would imply forgiveness and "these men did nothing wrong." 

Vacating the convictions cleared the records for John Alexander Gains, Thomas Walter Gaither, Clarence H. Graham, Willie Thomas Massey, Willie Edward McCleod, Robert L. McCullough, James Frank Wells, David Williamson Jr. and Mack C. Workman. The motion also cleared the name of Charles E. Taylor, another protestor who paid the fine to keep his athletic scholarship and four activists who came up from Atlanta and staged another sit-in, inspired by the Friendship Nine.

The case’s records were kept so that the story would be remembered. 

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