A "Triumph of Justice" in Alabama: The 1960 Perjury Trial of Martin Luther King, Jr

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Throughout his years as a civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., had many encounters with various state and federal authorities, was jailed a number of times, and was no stranger to the defendant's chair in criminal prosecutions. His pursuit of equal justice for his people and others required him to seek "due process" for himself on more than a few occasions. A well-known ordeal occurred in the fall of 1960, when King was sentenced to four months in a Georgia state prison for violating probation. After moving from Alabama to Atlanta in January of that year, King failed to register his automobile in Georgia in a timely fashion. He was convicted for this offense and placed on one-year probation. Later, in October, he joined some students for a sit-in at an Atlanta department store and was arrested for trespassing. King was immediately transported to the state penitentiary for violating probation, even before being tried for the trespassing charge. Robert Kennedy, in the midst of managing his brother's presidential campaign, quickly intervened and secured King's release from prison on bail and the charges were later dropped. Coming just days before the presidential election of 1960, Kennedy's actions gained a large number of votes for his brother in a contest that was extremely close. The significance of this episode cannot be overstated, since civil rights leaders were quite lukewarm about Kennedy in the Democratic primaries and in the general election. At one point during the campaign, Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, praised the civil rights record of Richard Nixon, Kennedy's opponent, and expressed concern over southern support of Kennedy, saying: "It is very difficult for thoughtful Negro voters to feel at ease over the endorsement of Senator Kennedy by Governor John Patterson of Alabama. Anything with an Alabama odor does not arouse much enthusiasm among Negro citizens." (1)

Another noteworthy legal action came in 1963, when King was tried for violating an injunction against demonstrations in Birmingham. (2) The outcome was ultimately decided in the Supreme Court of the United States. The jury verdict and later Supreme Court ruling were adverse to King and his co-defendants. (3) During the time he spent in jail in April 1963, upon conviction for this offense, King penned the now-famous "A Letter from Birmingham Jail" as a response to criticism from white clergy in Birmingham for his open and willing challenge of a court order.

A momentous prosecution, though, was his indictment and trial in Montgomery in May 1960 for perjury related to charges of tax evasion. King said it was "a turning point in my life." (4) His assessment was not an overstatement, since a verdict of guilty would have sent him to prison for one to five years. A jury of twelve white men, however, acquitted him of the charges.

In a chapter in his autobiography titled "Dr. King's Most Serious Charge," Fred Gray, the attorney who represented Rosa Parks and who would be a member of King's defense team for this prosecution, included this observation: "No one would have predicted that an all-white jury in Montgomery, Alabama, the Cradle of the Confederacy, in May 1960, in the middle of all the sit-ins and all of the racial tension that was going on, would exonerate Martin Luther King, Jr. But it really happened." (5) King would later say, "something happened to that jury." (6) His wife, Coretta Scott King, would comment: "A southern jury of twelve white men had acquitted Martin. It was a triumph of justice, a miracle that restored your faith in human good." (7)

Aside from Gray's above-mentioned chapter, King scholars and biographers have given minimal attention to this trial. Other than an occasional passing reference to the prospects of the Civil Rights Movement with King on the sidelines, none have evaluated the significance of this episode in any detail. (8) The purpose of this essay is to draw together the extant sources and materials for a detailed account of the event. …