Arresting Dr. King
Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Jan. 18, 2015.
Decatur’s annual MLK Service Project is concluding today and hundreds of volunteers have fanned out to help elderly, vulnerable residents make some much-needed repairs to their homes.
The Service Project is point of pride for the city, and each year breaks new records for attendance.
Much less known is an important story about Decatur’s role in Civil Rights history. A judge who sentenced Martin Luther King in a Decatur courtroom on trumped up traffic charges in 1960 nearly succeeded in banishing him to a state prison, where it was feared he would be killed. The Kennedy family, actively engaged in a campaign to elect John F. Kennedy president, intervened and secured his release. Some observers say that act helped propel Kennedy to a narrow victory over Richard M. Nixon.
I had never heard of the story, until a fellow reporter, Bill Banks of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, mentioned it to me one day. His knowledge was mostly anecdotal, and the story itself is mostly a footnote in the much larger Civil Rights struggle.
“It was a small turning point but I think it was a very important turning point,” said Melissa Forgey, Executive Director of the DeKalb History Center.
Even the basic facts about King’s arrest and hearing in Decatur are slippery. For example, as Forgey points out, it’s widely believed the hearing occurred at the historic courthouse on the Decatur square. Forgey said it actually occurred on the site of what became Callaway Building on West Trinity Place. The building was demolished to make way for a mixed use development. The old building that housed the offices of Judge Oscar Mitchell no longer exist.
Here’s what is generally known about the incident.
In May of 1960, King was driving author Lillian Smith, an author and a white woman, to Emory University where she was undergoing treatment for cancer, according to a recounting of the event published the Los Angeles Times. A DeKalb Police officer stopped them. King’s car tag was expired, and he didn’t have a Georgia driver’s license. The black-owned newspapers at the time often carried more detailed and thorough accounts of the events of the Civil Rights movement. The Baltimore Afro-American said shortly before his arrest, King had moved to Atlanta from Montgomery, Ala. but hadn’t obtained a Georgia license.
According to the History Center’s account, the charge on the expired tag was dropped after King proved he had applied for it. Judge Oscar Mitchell fined him $25 and given a 12 month suspended sentence for not having a state driver’s license. It has long been suspected that King’s real “crime” was being a black man riding in a car with a white woman.
King would later write “they had never fined or arrested anybody on a charge like that… so it was obviously a case of persecution,” according to the History Center.
A chain of events
What King may not have known at the time was that 12 month suspended sentence set into motion a chain of events that very nearly put him in one of the state’s most notorious prisons. Several months later in October, King participated in a sit-in at Rich’s, a department store in Atlanta. While the dozens of other protesters were quickly released, Judge Mitchell ordered King to remain jail. Mitchell later tried him for violating the terms of his probation, which stated that he could not be arrested again during the term of his sentence.
The Rome News Tribune carried an article about the trial under the headline, “Negro Integration Leader Sentenced to Four Months.” King was represented by attorney Donald Hollowell. According to the DeKalb History Center, the trial was briefly delayed due to a bomb threat. The Tribune’s article, written by the Associated Press, describes the hearing as a spectacle.
“King had been brought in handcuffs from the nearby Fulton County Jail in Atlanta for the hearing,” the article says. “The DeKalb County courtroom was crowded with 100 or more Negroes and 200 white persons. All standing room was filled.”
The article said “there was so much pushing and shoving in the courtroom that the judge halted the proceedings at one point to order it stopped” as the crowd pushed toward the attorney’s table. There was no picture taking or interviews allowed in the courtroom during the hearing.
King told Judge Mitchell he didn’t realize when he pleaded guilty to the traffic violation that he was also under probation that could be revoked if he was arrested.
“Mitchell interrupted King to say the Negro leader had signed the plea of guilty,” the article in the Rome News Tribune says. “The judge said he asked King’s attorney whether he had explained to King that the suspension would be revoked if King violated any law in the future. The jurist brought from the attorney a statement that King had been so advised.”
Hollowell argued that under state law, the probated sentence couldn’t be longer than six months, meaning the order was a “nullity” and the charges should be dropped.
Judge Mitchell denied the defense’s motion for bond and eventually sentenced King to four months of hard labor at the prison in Reidsville.
According to an account published many years later in The Los Angeles Times, “At the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Wyatt Tee Walker spread an alarm by telephone. The state road gang meant cutthroat inmates and casually dismissed murders. King had to be freed or he would be dead.”
King was transferred to prison at 4 am the next day.
David Garrow, who wrote the Pulitzer-prize winning book “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”, said the early morning transfer must have been terrifying for King.
“I think part of the story that makes it so significant is how he’s dragged out of his cell there in Decatur at whatever hour of the early morning in the dark and put in this car and off they drive, without him being told where he’s going,” Garrow said. “It’s only when they finally get to Reidsville that he understands what’s happening. … I think here’s no question that he is probably more afraid in those minutes when he’s being dragged out of the cell there in Decatur than he was at any other time in his life, because they’re doing it in such a way as to scare the s-h-i-t out of him.”
It’s not entirely clear where the jail was at this time. Forgey believes it was likely on the same property as Mitchell’s courtroom.
What happened next is also the subject of some debate.
The short version is Harris Wofford, a friend of King, was working on the Sen. John F. Kennedy’s campaign for president, tried to secure King’s release prior to his appearance in Judge Mitchell’s courtroom, according to an essay published by Clifford M. Kuhn. He placed a call to Atlanta attorney Morris Abram who reached out to Mayor William B. Hartsfield. Hartsfield viewed it as an opportunity to possibly influence the presidential election in Sen. Kennedy’s favor. Hartsfield told black leaders that Kennedy favored King’s release, but apparently never discussed the issue with Kennedy beforehand, according to Kuhn’s essay.
This caused a commotion within the campaign, which feared that association with King could doom Kennedy’s chances in the election against Richard Nixon. There were backroom political agreements in play. According to the LA Times article, then Gov. Ernest Ernest Vandiver Jr., had allegedly promised to release King if Sen. Kennedy didn’t make any statements about the case.
The Kennedy campaign arranged a phone call from the candidate to King’s wife, Corretta Scott King, a call that lasted about two minutes, according to the LA Times Article. Kennedy offered his assistance, and Corretta said she would appreciate it.
Word of the phone call quickly spread. A reporter asked Kennedy about it in New York, and the candidate confirmed it. The Nixon campaign declined to comment, according to the LA Times article. Kennedy’s brother, Robert Kennedy, called Judge Mitchell, who ordered King released, according to Kuhn’s essay.
In a WSB-TV news clip of the day King was released from prison, a reporter asked him about Kennedy’s involvement.
“Well, I owe a great debt of gratitude to Senator Kennedy and his family for this,” King told the reporter. “I don’t know the details of it, but naturally I’m very happy to know of Senator Kennedy’s concern and all he did to make this possible.”
There’s been speculation about whether this phone call persuaded black voters to show up and put Kennedy over the top in the presidential election.
Garrow doesn’t think that can be proven.
“I’ve always thought it’s a little bit of a reach to embrace that notion that enough black voters across the country hear about this to argue that it’s decisive in turning the election,” he said. “In a national election that’s as close as that one was, you can come up with 72 different possibilities of what was a decisive factor. I think what is important is it does demonstrate that John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy did have this potential to be deeply sympathetic to what black Southerners have experienced during the age of segregation.”
Forgey said Kennedy’s involvement strengthened the relationship of the Democratic Party with black voters in the South.
“Whether or not it was a factor (in the election), the Kennedys definitely opened the door to the democratic party for African Americans in a way it hadn’t been before that and that is pretty important for the South,” she said.
A little-known story
When I went looking for more information about this story, one of my questions was why it isn’t common knowledge here in Decatur. After all, it happened not far from downtown and our city prides itself on being a progressive community dedicated to diversity.
The building where it happened is gone, but it’s more than just that.
“I don’t think it was something positive to advertise, and I think Atlanta and DeKalb hid things,” Forgey said. “I think Atlanta worked really hard not to have some of the destruction that happened around the rest of the South and that’s very well documented. It all happened so swiftly and went off the radar so quickly. I think that’s one of the reasons, and there was certainly misinformation about it when I got here.”
Garrow said the involvement of the Kennedy family has overshadowed the setting where these events took place.
“I think this story is well known in the Kennedy presidential election context, but I think it’s just thought of as a Georgia and an Atlanta story,” Garrow said. “I don’t think the Decatur piece is part of the textbook summary version.”
So what is the significance of this story, decades later?
“One angle to take on it, is the degree of utter physical vulnerability that even prominent famous black people could experience, could suffer from in that era, given how law enforcement behaved toward black folks,” Garrow said.
Forgey said the story is also a reminder that the Civil Rights Movement brought important changes to the South, and the nation, but that it never really ended. She notes that King’s initial arrest was likely the result of racial profiling, something that continues to be discussed and debated, including in progressive cities like Decatur.
“At least people of different races can ride around in cars together and get stopped less often,” she said. “We have freedoms but we don’t have equality and the fight needs to continue. The struggle for civil rights is still going on and we don’t talk about it in that context and I think it’s really important to understand some things have not changed.”