The events that led to the 1964 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision confirming freedom of the press under the First Amendment in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan began in March 1960, after Martin Luther King’s supporters published a fundraising appeal on the civil rights leader’s behalf. The appeal was in response to King’s arrest on perjury charges, and so incensed Alabama officials that they brought suit against several black ministers whose names appeared on the advertisement.
On 17 February 1960 two Fulton County sheriff’s deputies arrested King at his Ebenezer Baptist Church office and took him into custody. A grand jury in Alabama had issued a warrant for King’s arrest on two counts of felony perjury for signing fraudulent tax returns for 1956 and 1958. In response to King’s indictment, a group of King supporters met in Harry Belafonte’s New York apartment to form the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, to raise money for King’s defense and for other civil rights initiatives. Under the chairmanship of A. Philip Randolph, the committee immediately launched a fundraising campaign aimed at raising $200,000.
In a 3 March press release, the committee denounced the charges against King as a “gross misrepresentation of fact” because King’s income had never “even approached” the $45,000 that Alabama officials claimed he earned in 1958 (Papers 5:25–26). In response to the perjury charges against King, a felony that could have resulted in a five-year sentence, the committee placed a full-page advertisement in the New York Times entitled “Heed Their Rising Voices.” The ad sought to demonstrate that King’s arrest was politically motivated and part of an effort “to destroy the one man who, more than any other, symbolizes the new spirit now sweeping the South” (Papers 5:382). The appeal requested donations that would be divided between King’s defense, support for student protesters, and the voting rights struggle, and was signed by 84 King supporters, including Jackie Robinson and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Alabama officials, particularly governor John Patterson, were upset by statements in the ad, which accused Alabama state and local officials of retaliating against students for protesting, and harassing King with repeated arrests. L. B. Sullivan, a Montgomery city commissioner, sued the New York Times for libel, and Patterson demanded an immediate retraction. Four Alabama ministers whose names appeared in the advertisement, Ralph Abernathy, Solomon S. Seay, Fred L. Shuttlesworth, and Joseph Lowery, were also sued, despite testimony that their names were used without their knowledge or consent. In addition to Sullivan and Patterson, three other Alabama officials each sued the Times and the four ministers for $500,000. The Patterson suit also included King as a defendant.
During the trial in Alabama, Sullivan and his lawyers attempted to persuade the jury that the statements made in the ad were libelous, false, and injurious to his reputation. The jury ruled in his favor and the defendants were required to pay $500,000. On appeal the defendants argued that Sullivan’s suit violated the First Amendment, but the Alabama Court responded: “The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not protect libelous publications” (Times v. Sullivan). The Supreme Court of Alabama affirmed the lower court’s decision on 30 August 1962.
In a final attempt to reverse the previous decisions, Herbert Wechsler, a professor at Columbia Law School and specialist on the Constitution and the Supreme Court, was asked to handle the case, in conjunction with Clarence Jones, Harry Wachtel, and others. Wechsler’s arguments persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the Alabama decisions based on the suppositions that Sullivan’s case lacked proof of “actual malice,” lacked evidence that the statements were “of and concerning” Sullivan, and did not produce with convincing clarity evidence that the statements were published with “reckless disregard of whether it was true or false” (Times v. Sullivan). Following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on 9 March 1964, all charges were dropped against the defendants.
Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, “Heed Their Rising Voices,” 29 March 1960, in Papers 5:382.
Committee to Defend Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, Press release, “Statement on the Indictment of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” 3 March 1960, APRP-DLC.
Introduction, in Papers 5:24–26.
King, Interview on Arrest following Indictment by Grand Jury of Montgomery County, 17 February 1960, in Papers 5:370–372.
Lewis, Make No Law, 1991.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).
Patterson to King, 9 May 1960, in Papers 5:456–458.
Tedford, Freedom of Speech in the United States, 1985.