PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Thomas Gaither, now a retired Slippery Rock University professor, was once a member of the so-called “Friendship Nine.”

Gaither and eight college students were arrested on trespassing charges in early 1961 in South Carolina for trying to stage a sit-in at an all-white lunch counter.

Rather than being bailed out of jail, they served a 30-day sentence.

Today, after 54 years, a judge in South Carolina tossed out the nine convictions saying, “We cannot re-write history, but we can right history.”

Gaither told KDKA TV’s Ralph Iannotti that he never saw today’s decision coming.

“Back in 1961, when I was a field organizer for CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), we were concerned with doing what we thought was the right thing, and so, it’s icing on the cake that we get accolades now, 54 years later,” Gaither said.

Gaither could not attend Wednesday’s hearing in South Carolina, but he says he stays in touch with many of the college students who took part in the protest.

He said the jail sentence, rather than bail, was what he called a “signature Civil Rights Movement,” because while people had been jailed before, the “Friendship Nine” protest involved an entire group, not just one or two people.

Gaither said the decision by a judge to toss out the convictions “was a victory for non-violence.”

He said he hoped it would prompt young people to learn history, and work to make a better America, because racism is still alive and well in this country despite the progress that has been made toward equal justice over the past five decades.

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