'Friendship Nine' to be cleared of civil rights sit-in crimes

Sun Jan 18, 2015 7:33am EST
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By Colleen Jenkins

ROCK HILL, S.C. (Reuters) - Fifty-four years after nine young black men became the first U.S. civil rights protesters to serve jail time for sitting at an all-white lunch counter, surviving members of the group will return to a South Carolina courtroom this month to be exonerated of their crimes.

Their "jail, no bail" strategy helped galvanize the fight against racial inequality in the South and became a model for other protesters. But the "Friendship Nine," as the men became known, endured personal hardships for taking the bold stand.

They say the push to clear their names so long after the Jan. 31, 1961, sit-in in Rock Hill will have little effect on their lives. Still, they welcome the message it sends at a time of sharpened focus on U.S. race relations following white police killings of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York.

"For the generations that are here now and for the future, it shows that the country was wrong," said one of the men, Willie McCleod, 72.

The convictions are among a number of decades-old cases that have been revisited across the South in recent years as courts acknowledge racial injustice in the criminal justice system.

Author Kimberly Johnson, who published a children's book about the Friendship Nine last year, began to seek vindication for the men after reading what Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1963 while he was jailed for demonstrating against discrimination of African Americans.

In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King argued he had a moral duty to stand up to unjust laws. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," he wrote.

The U.S. holiday honoring King, who was assassinated in 1968, is on Monday.   Continued...

Friendship Nine members Clarence Graham, David Williamson Jr., Willie Thomas Massey, James F. Wells and Willie E. McCleod (L-R) stand in front of a historical commemorative marker outside the Five & Dine diner in Rock Hill, South Carolina, December 17, 2014.  REUTERS/Jason Miczek