The Friendship 9

For those of us who live or work in Greensboro, NC the story of the Woolworth sit-in, an event that is generally considered the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, is very familiar. Subsequent events in the movement may not be as familiar to those of us who aren’t experts on the movement so it’s always interesting to read or hear about them. That’s why this story about The Friendship 9 caught my attention:

Fifty-four years ago this week, nine young black men sat down at the whites-only counter of McCrory’s five-and-dime store on Main Street in the town of Rock Hill, South Carolina. After ordering burgers and cokes, the men were asked to leave; after they refused to leave, they were arrested for trespassing.

The Civil Rights Movement was, relatively speaking, in its infancy at the time. Less than a year after the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Friendship 9 were arrested on the same day that James Meredith submitted his college application to then-segregated Ole Miss.

On Wednesday, the eight surviving members of the Friendship 9⎯most of the nine men had been students at nearby Friendship College in 1961⎯were back in a Rock Hill courthouse to see their sentences vacated and their convictions overturned. “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history,” Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III told the courtroom to high applause as he threw out the cases⎯a poignant flourish given that Hayes’ uncle had originally sentenced the men in 1961.

As NBC News noted, the men “were represented in the hearing by Ernest A. Finney Jr., the same man who defended their case 54 years ago,” who later served as South Carolina Supreme Court’s first black chief justice since Reconstruction.

Quite frankly it was refreshing to read this story because, of late, the news in Greensboro has been about the managerial and financial problems faced by the International Civil Rights Museum which is housed in the former Woolworth building where the sit-in occurred. At least one of the museum’s principal players has accused the city, which basically holds the financial future of the museum in its hands and has proposed taking over management of the museum, of wanting to whitewash history:

Earl Jones, one of the founders of the museum, said he was “outraged” by an offer from Mayor Nancy Vaughan on Monday to have the city operate the museum. Jones called the offer “disrespectful.”

“It’s my speculation that there’s a part of the mayor’s group that would like to see the museum taken over so the history and integrity of the civil rights movement can be undermined and whitewashed,” Jones said. “I think that’s what it’s about.”..

Vaughan said she and the City Council just want to be sure the museum stays open. That will require more professional management, she said.

Given the context of what Judge Hayes said – “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.” – it seems ironic that Greensboro’s history continues to be one in which color divides people. In this case green.

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