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Judge Throws Out Friendship 9's Civil Rights-Era Conviction

Updated at 2:28 p.m. ET

A judge in South Carolina has thrown out the convictions of the Friendship Nine, nine black men who integrated a whites-only lunch counter in 1961, at the peak of the civil rights movement.

"We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history," Judge John C. Hayes III said before signing the order that vacated their trespassing convictions. (Hayes is the nephew of the judge who handed down the original sentence.) The prosecutor apologized to the eight surviving members of the Friendship Nine who were in the courtroom.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reported Wednesday morning on the story. She says these days Clarence Graham, one of the Friendship Nine, is welcome at the Five & Dine restaurant in downtown Rock Hill, S.C.

In 1961, it was the site of a McCrory's five-and-dime store, and blacks were forbidden to sit at the lunch counter.

Today, Graham is a bit of a celebrity at the Five & Dine, Debbie reported on NPR's Morning Edition. But in 1961, at age 17, he was one of eight students — W.T. "Dub" Massey, Willie McCleod, Robert McCullough, James Wells, David Williamson Jr., John Gaines and Mack Workman — from Friendship Junior College who sat down. The ninth member of the group was Thomas Gaither, an activist with the Congress of Racial Equality.

"I was in that fourth chair," Graham tells Debbie. "'Cause I can recall before ... my bottom touched that seat, they had me on the floor and swoofed me out that door. Dragged me out."

Civil rights protesters often agreed to pay a fine, but Graham and his comrades tried a new strategy: "jail, no bail," which became a tool in the fight against Jim Crow.

The case received attention recently after South Carolina children's book author Kimberly Johnson urged the county solicitor to clear their records, saying it "needs to be rectified."

The convictions were vacated under the rules that might exonerate someone based on new evidence that casts doubt on the validity of a conviction.

"What we have in this case is not something you can hold in your hand," Solicitor Kevin Brackett said. "It's more of an evolving consciousness, and evolving awareness of the wrongfulness of the policies of that time."

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Corrected: January 27, 2015 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the judge in today's case as Mark Hayes. In fact, Judge John C. Hayes III signed the order to vacate the trespassing conviction.