Decatur High students’ ‘Commemorating King’ project to highlight Civil Rights history in DecaturRev. Martin Luther King, head-and-shoulders portrait, seated, facing front, hands extended upward, during a press conference / World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico. Photo given to the Library of Congress and obtained via Wikimedia Commons
This story has been updated.
DECATUR, GA — Commemorating King, a campaign by Decatur High School students to get a historical marker placed at the Downtown Decatur site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and illegally sentenced in 1960, is making — and marking — progress in the city.
The proposed marker near Decatur City Hall would educate residents and visitors about a little-known piece of Civil Rights history: when Dr. King was illegally sentenced to “public works,” otherwise known as a chain gang or hard labor, in a misdemeanor traffic case. According to the students’ research, Dr. King’s arrest, and the court’s malfeasant sentence and incarceration of Dr. King, had a significant impact on the Civil Rights movement and the political direction of the country when then-candidate John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy intervened to free Dr. King from jail. This act led Black voters in the South to shift parties and elect John F. Kennedy over incumbent Vice President Nixon.
According to the students’ research, Dr. King was pulled over on Clifton Road in Dekalb County on May 4, 1960, while driving writer Lillian Smith to Emory University Hospital for cancer treatment. Dr. King was issued a ticket for having an expired tag and no Georgia driver’s license, although he had an Alabama driver’s license that would not expire until 1962. He was given a summons to appear in court in Decatur.
On Sept. 23, 1960, Dr. King appeared before Dekalb Judge J. Oscar Mitchell, who imposed probation. On Oct. 19, Dr. King was arrested alongside students while joining the Atlanta Student Movement’s sit-in at Rich’s Department Store and was taken to Fulton County Jail on trespassing charges. Although all of the other participants were released after Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield negotiated a deal to end the student boycott, drop the charges, and desegregate the stores, Dr. King was taken to Decatur in handcuffs on Oct. 25 to appear again before Judge Mitchell, where Dr. King was sentenced.
Liza Watson, the co-president of the Decatur High School Black Student Union, says the research project began last summer. English teacher Katrina Walker and history teacher Bre Dayton were contacted by Mike Warren, a journalist who had written about Dr. King’s arrest in Decatur and asked if any students were interested in creating a campaign for a historical marker.
After Warren met with advisors and members of the Black Student Union to discuss the project, students set about conducting research using archives at the DeKalb History Center, where they were able to view blueprints of the former building, known as Dekalb County’s Civil and Criminal Court and Jail. The building stood at what is now the intersection of McDonough and Trinity, the current site of a new apartment building across from Chick-fil-A and diagonal to Decatur City Hall.
The students also conducted oral history interviews with Dr. Roslyn Pope, Charles Black, Judge Clarence Seeliger, and Decatur Mayor emerita Elizabeth Wilson.
“I personally got to interview Dr. Roslyn Pope, [who] wrote ‘An Appeal for Human Rights,’ which was one of the staples of the Civil Rights movement,” said Black Student Union member Genesis Reddicks. “Getting to know her, I just felt really happy, and I got to learn so much just talking to this Black woman who did so much for the community. … Speaking to her, hearing about her life and work, was really inspirational.”
Dr. Roslyn Pope wrote “An Appeal for Human Rights,” during her senior year at Spelman College, dictating her writing to future lawmaker and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. The paper explained why Black college students in Atlanta would boycott white-owned stores and protest at whites-only lunch counters.
Charles Black was present at Dr. King’s hearing in Decatur. “When King was arrested, you know, this gave new life to our efforts because people were ready to give up, and decided they could hang in there. And that made all the difference,” Black told DHS student Daxton Pettus in an oral history interview.
Judge Clarence Seeliger described Judge Mitchell as racist in an interview with DHS student Halle Gordon. “Well, he was a racist first of all, and he didn’t mind saying so … he could be very abusive toward African-Americans who appeared in his court,” Seeliger said. “He was an absolute dictator in the courtroom. There was no one to control him. They used to call it Judge Oscar’s Court.”
Decatur Mayor emerita Elizabeth Wilson spoke to the strength and determination Dr. King showed in Decatur.
“Dr King’s being arrested, serving in jail, being in DeKalb County, that helped me to want to be in the position of making a difference,” Wilson said in an interview with DHS students Liza Watson and Adelaide Taylor. “That whole history of the Kennedys, politically, that is when I saw how the political system could really work, because I guess if Daddy King and Coretta had never contacted the Kennedys about helping to get Martin out of Reidsville, I don’t know how long he would have been there.”
Reddicks presented a slideshow about the project to the City Commission during their June 1 meeting, and the commission agreed to be one of the sponsors for the project.
“[Dr. King’s arrest and sentencing] proved pivotal to the Civil Rights movement and presidential politics, as John F. Kennedy intervened to free King from prison, and Black voters switched parties to elect him,” Reddicks wrote in the presentation. “It also inspired people to push for changes in our community, in rarely acknowledged ways that have shaped what the city of Decatur is today.”
The students have also received sponsorship for the project from Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights. The sponsors will help the students raise $2,500 for the placement of the marker.
The Georgia Historical Society is expected to vote on the students’ application for the marker this October, 60 years after King’s sentencing.
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