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An inspirational civil rights protest shines even 54 years later

More than half a century ago, nine students made a bold stand against injustice. On Saturday, they celebrated with a commemorative visit.

On this day 54 years ago, a group of 10 defiant students from in Rock Hill, South Carolina, put their lives on the line in a quest for justice and equality. During a time when the South still harbored Jim Crow laws, and "whites only" signs marred public water fountains and restaurants, the group of students from Rock Hill's Friendship Junior College took their fight to McCrory's' "whites only" lunch counter.

Before they could even sit down, the activists, who became known collectively as the "Friendship Nine," were met with police aggression and sent to jail.

On Saturday, seven surviving members of that inspirational group made the trip back to that same lunch counter, now known as the Five and Dine, to commemorate their activism — and the fact that more than half a century later, their conviction was overturned by a Rock Hill judge.

"I remember being grabbed by my belt and being thrown to the floor and being dragged out of the store ... [by] officers," Clarence Graham, a member of the Friendship Nine, told msnbc

"I was afraid, I admit that," Willie McCleod, another member of the Friendship Nine, added. 

Despite being frightened and physically assaulted, the young men even then held firm to their cause. They decided not to pay bail, instead serving all 30 days of hard labor, which involved shoveling sand. "Jail, no bail" was the motto that grew out of their decision. The tactic preserved the depleting bail funds of civil rights activists, kept money out of an unjust system, and embarrassed local authorities. 

The move also gained the group national attention at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was taking firm hold of the nation.

On Jan. 28, the original attorney for the Friendship Nine and a Rock Hill prosecutor asked a judge to vacate their convictions and he agreed to so. A multi-generational and multiracial crowd, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter Bernice King, packed the courthouse for the ceremony.

"Allow me to take this opportunity to extend each of you my heartfelt apologies for what happened to you in 1961  it was wrong," Kevin Brackett, a South Carolina prosecutor said at the hearing.

He went on to tell msnbc that he was honored to overturn the conviction. "We need to take the time to tell them 'thank you' ... 'They were right,'" he said. 

At the ceremony, McCleod also offered words that resonate with future fights for justice and equality. 

"If we want to accomplish anything and we want to have a successful outcome, we must do it non-violently, the proof of that being the Friendship Nine," he said. "We proved that nonviolence is the method to use."