ROCK HILL, SC (WMBF) - Nine men arrested and jailed while protesting during the Civil Rights Movement, had their convictions dropped on Wednesday.
Those nine men were arrested at a Rock Hill restaurant more than 50 years ago, but on Wednesday they were exonerated of those charges.
“We were able to protest in a non-violent way and defeat that law,” John A. Gaines of Friendship Nine said.
Gaines is a retired Florence attorney. He was one member of the group known as the Friendship Nine.
Back in 1961, the men protested racial inequality by performing a sit-in at a 'whites only' restaurant in Rock Hill.
The nine men were convicted on trespassing charges and opted out of paying bail, which meant they had to spend 30 days in jail.
And for 54 years those convictions plagued the men's records.
“I really don't know how to feel. I don't know how to express it. I've got gratitude; I'm excited all of it together, but it's good…. it's a good thing,” Clarence H. Graham of the Friendship Nine said.
South Carolina Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett says, “The right thing eventually happens. It sometimes takes longer than we like…justice may come may come slowly, but it's coming and eventually it will come out.”
The judge presiding the case is the nephew of the man who sentenced the nine men back in 1961.
"My uncle was a wonderful human being…certainly no racist. He was a city judge, and in my order if you listen and read it later, you'll see that I didn't directly mention that, but I did not think that this was not a Rock Hill problem, it was a societal problem," Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III said.
Only seven of the Friendship nine were at the exoneration hearing. All seven said they are humbled that their silent peaceful protest helped to move American forward.
"If you check your history, this is the only quote-on-quote successful movement that there was no blood shed. Not one drop of blood was spilled." Graham said.
Following their exoneration, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter
congratulated the men on their efforts in furthering civil rights for all.
"I tell people all the time, my father gets a lot of accolades, but the reality is that he could not have been the leader that he was … had people not followed him and not embraced what he embodied and taught,"