Despite accusations of race bias within the criminal justice system, civil rights movements have undergone a shift in recent decades. Not only has the rise of the internet and instant communication changed how messages and issues are broadcast, but we now, more than ever, have many fragmented fronts occurring simultaneously. In recent years, gay rights have been on the forefront of civil liberty groups’ minds, as has a recent resurgence of neo-feminist ideals.
Just in time for Black History Month, however, an interesting case resurfaced before a judge just a few days ago. Judge Mark Hayes tossed out the convictions of several civil rights movement activists. While eight of the men whose convictions were erased were present, the ruling was actually for nine men. Unfortunately, one of them had passed away in the years since the incident occurred, a caveat that would be surprising, if the original conviction wasn’t from 1961.
At the time, 54 years ago, the nine men were college students, actively involved in the intense civil rights firestorm of the time. On one day, the group decided to grab lunch at the McCrory variety store in Rock Hill. They were arrested, for daring to sit at the lunch counter there – it was designated for whites only. They were charged with trespassing and “breach of peace.”
But the story doesn’t stop there. After they were arrested, the young men refused to pay the bail posed to them by the prison. Their reasoning was that the town they lived in was segregationist, and they refused to line its pockets with money from the very people who their racist laws impacted in the most negative way. Countrywide, “jail not bail” protests arose where protesters got themselves arrested for civil disobedience only to overcrowd jail cells after refusing to pay bail.
The nationwide protest against Jim Crow laws at the time was spread even quicker after receiving extensive media attention. The ‘Friendship 9’, as the group came to be known, were a sparking point for the entire movement. When eight of them appeared in court for the repealing of their convictions, Judge Hayes said that while he couldn’t “rewrite history… we can right history,” in a turn of phrase.
Today, the restaurant is called the Old Town Bistro and still exists in the same place. A place out front recounts the events of the fateful day in 1961; the restaurant has offered both personal and official apologies to each of the men since the incident.
More shocking than any one event, however, is the reminder that segregation in this country is not as far removed as some might think. A mere half century ago, Jim Crow laws were still in place, segregating various areas of the public with such legal backing as to warrant arrest when they were violated. Back then there was clear evidence of true racism. The issues that minorities face today pale in comparison to what they faced just over 50 years ago.