By Colleen Jenkins
(Reuters) - Black civil rights protesters credited with reinvigorating the 1960s U.S. sit-in movement were absolved by a South Carolina court on Wednesday of the convictions lodged against them 54 years ago after they dared to sit at a segregated lunch counter.
The men, known as the 'Friendship Nine' because most were students at the now-closed Friendship College, knew they would be arrested when they took seats at the popular McCrory's five-and-dime store lunch counter in Rock Hill on Jan. 31, 1961.
Found guilty of trespassing, they became the country's first demonstrators to choose to serve jail time rather than pay a fine for sitting at an all-white lunch counter, launching the "jail, no bail" strategy later adopted by other activists.
In a packed courtroom in Rock Hill on Wednesday, not far from the site of the historic sit-in, city and court officials agreed it was time for the record to show that the group's stand against racial injustice was not a crime.
Judge John C. Hayes III, a nephew of the judge who presided over the men's trials, signed an order vacating the convictions of the Friendship Nine and several other protesters who were arrested in Rock Hill in a show of solidarity with the men.
"We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history," Hayes said.
The surviving members of the group attending the hearing were again represented by Ernest Finney Jr., a civil rights lawyer who went on to become the first black chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The men stood stoically, one by one, as another judge read aloud their names, charges and sentences from the original docket created at their trials on Feb. 1, 1961.
David Williamson, James Wells, Willie McCleod, Willie Thomas "Dub" Massey, Clarence Graham, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, Mack Workman and Robert McCullough all served 30-day sentences at the county prison farm. Several of the men have said the burdens of having a criminal record lasted far longer.
Graham, 72, said after Wednesday's hearing that the group sought no "hero worship," either in 1961 or now.
"It wasn’t for any glory," he said. "We were simply ... students who were tired of the status quo, tired of being treated as second-class citizens."
Their case offers a lesson in the ongoing fight for equality, he said.
"Even though we were treated unjustly, still nonviolence prevailed," Graham said. "That’s our message to young people."
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Editing by Eric Walsh, Bill Trott and James Dalgleish)