A "triumph of justice" in Alabama: the 1960 perjury trial of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Author:Dyer, Edgar
 
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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. After a consideration of the particulars, some thoughts on the broader legal, political, and social context of these notable events will be presented.

THE SETTING

The facts leading to that Montgomery courtroom in May 1960 began with the same events that spawned the modern Civil Rights Movement. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a tired seamstress on her way home from work, refused to give up her seat and move to the back of a Montgomery bus. Four days later, she was convicted of violating a city ordinance requiring segregation in public transit. In response, local African American leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) as the organizational center of a mass boycott of the buses. Car pools were formed and, after a year of litigation and confrontations, the boycott was ended when the federal courts finally declared segregated bus seating on local public transit buses and other vehicles to be unconstitutional. The 26-year-old King, who had only recently come to Montgomery as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was named as the leader and spokesman for MIA. From his experience and contacts in MIA, King would form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in early 1957.

During the late 1950s, King continued his ministry in the Dexter Avenue pulpit. Thrust into the national limelight with the Montgomery bus boycott, he was in demand as a speaker and traveled widely for appearances and engagements. Pertinent to the future charges of tax evasion and perjury, there are at least two versions of his record-keeping habits during this period.

Coretta Scott King's explanation is: "He was, in fact, completely scrupulous and utterly meticulous in his accounting. He felt that this was crucial to his leadership of the Movement; but more importantly, he was the sort of man who was ruthlessly honest with himself in such matters." (9)

One of his biographers has a differing account, however.

It seems hardly possible that Dr. King at any time tried to enrich himself from his public works. Often he received $1,000, sometimes $1,500, for making a speech and, when he got home, tossed it into the funds of the Movement. He was a creature of comfort and enjoyed traveling first class in every respect. He enjoyed good clothes and the services of a secretary and, whenever possible, a personal staff. But his habit with cash was to take what he needed and deposit back in the fund a large part of his earnings, and he managed to be careless about both. (10) The evidence would tend to corroborate Mrs. King's perspective. (11) Her husband may have had Achilles heels and feet of clay, but tax evasion was not one of his human weaknesses. Unfortunately, he would be required to prove this to a jury.

A LEGAL HYDRA IN MONTGOMERY

King resigned his pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in November of 1959. At that time, he was heavily involved in the work of SCLC and was the most visible spokesman of the Civil Rights Movement. To be able to commit more time and effort to those two jobs, he left Dexter Avenue to become co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and began the new decade there. As mentioned earlier, shortly after moving to Georgia, he received the citation for failing to register his automobile, which ultimately led to the imprisonment that required Robert Kennedy's intervention.

In January 1960, less than a month after he had moved to Atlanta, King was summoned back to Montgomery to meet with an Alabama revenue agent. Lloyd Hale, who had audited King's tax returns from 1956, 1957, and 1958, was acting on orders from John Patterson, the governor of Alabama at that time. (12) Hale claimed that King had not reported $7,012 in income from 1956 and $20,173 in 1958. King gave the agent a check for some $1,600-"under very strong protest" in his own words--as payment for the state taxes on this income. (13) He considered the matter closed and returned to Atlanta.

Soon after that meeting, though, the Montgomery County grand jury convened for its February term and the name "U. J. Fields" ominously appeared as the twenty-fourth witness on an undated document entitled "State Witnesses Before Grand Jury." (14) No transcript of his testimony exists, but there should be little doubt as to the subject of Fields' statements, even if he had no direct information. (15) Back in 1956, Fields, an original officer of MIA and Baptist minister, became angry when the organization's executive board failed to reelect him to his position as Recording Secretary. He resigned and began a smear campaign of the organization's leadership, which included King. Variously called a "black Judas" and a "renegade MIA official," Fields accused MIA officers of misappropriation of funds for personal use and claimed that certain egos were out of control. (16) King was convinced that Fields was not referring to him and proceeded to make peace with Fields, even to the point of asking those attending an MIA mass meeting to forgive Fields, who was present and was allowed to explain his actions. (17) King likely thought that the matter was properly settled by Christian practice and put to rest.

On 12 February 1960, however, the sixteen-member Montgomery grand jury returned two indictments against King for perjury related to tax evasion, one for the year 1956 and one for 1958. In reporting on the indictments and Fields' appearance before the grand jury, the New York Times reported that Fields "set up a rival Negro organization in Montgomery [and] previously had accused Dr. King of mishandling funds donated to support the bus boycott. He has also said Dr. King deposited $100,000 in two Atlanta banks." (18)

Alabama law did not classify tax evasion as a felony, so the Montgomery Solicitor William Thetford sought the perjury charge, which was a felony and a much more serious crime. The indictments, signed by Thetford and the grand jury foreman, George Preiss, Jr...

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