White officials in Alabama conducted two concerted efforts to defeat Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement legally, by indicting King for violating an anti-boycotting law during the Montgomery bus boycott and for income tax fraud, in 1956 and 1960, respectively.
On 21 February 1956 King was indicted by the Montgomery County Grand Jury for his boycott of the Montgomery City Lines, Inc. According to the State of Alabama, King and 89 others violated a 1921 statute that outlawed boycotts against businesses. During the four-day trial, which began on 19 March 1956, eight lawyers, led by local attorney Fred Gray, defended King by presenting the evils of bus segregation and the abuse that Montgomery blacks had suffered for years from Montgomery bus drivers. Thirty-one witnesses testified to the harassment they had suffered while riding the city buses. Stella Brooks revealed that she stopped riding the buses in 1950, after her husband was killed by Montgomery police. According to Brooks, her husband was shot after demanding a fare refund following a confrontation with the bus driver.
On the final day of the trial, Judge Eugene W. Carter found King guilty and fined him $500 plus an additional $500 for court costs. Rather than pay the fine, King chose to appeal the verdict, and the sentence was converted to 386 days of jail time. Responding to the verdict, King said: “I was optimistic enough to hope for the best but realistic enough to prepare for the worst. This will not mar or diminish in any way my interest in the protest. We will continue to protest in the same spirit of nonviolence and passive resistance, using the weapon of love” (Phillips, “Negro Minister Convicted”). Outside the courthouse, King was greeted by a crowd of 300 cheering supporters. The Court of Appeals rejected King’s appeal on 30 April 1957, maintaining that his lawyers missed the 60-day deadline. King paid the fine in December 1957.
King’s second indictment came in February 1960, after an Alabama grand jury issued a warrant for his arrest on two counts of felony perjury. The state charged that King had signed fraudulent tax returns for 1956 and 1958. A state audit of King’s returns the previous month claimed that he had not reported funds he received on behalf of the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and still owed the state more than $1,700. In late February a group of King’s supporters met in the New York home of Harry Belafonte and formed the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South. The committee issued press releases denouncing 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 King received in 1958 (Papers 5:25–26).
King’s trial began in Montgomery, Alabama, on 25 May 1960. His lawyers effectively poked holes in the prosecution’s case, calling attention to the vagueness of the indictment and arguing that any expense reimbursements King may have received from SCLC were nontaxable income. Testifying in his own defense, King asserted that the tax examiner had revealed that he was “under pressure by his supervisors” to find fault with his returns (Papers 5:30). The all-white jury deliberated nearly four hours before returning a “not guilty” verdict. In a statement following the verdict King said: “This represents to my mind great hope, and it reveals that said on so many occasions, that there are hundreds and thousands of people, white people of goodwill in the South” (Papers 5:462). Although neither case posed a serious threat to King or the movement, these cases show the extent to which white officials in Alabama went to thwart civil rights gains in the state.
Burns, Daybreak of Freedom, 1997.
Indictment, State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr., et al., 21 February 1956, in Papers 3:132–133.
Introduction, in Papers 3:14-16.
Judgment and Sentence of the Court, State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr., 22 March 1956, in Papers 3:197.
King, Statement on Perjury Acquittal, 28 May 1960, in Papers 5:462.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
Wayne Phillips, “Negro Minister Convicted of Directing Bus Boycott,” New York Times, 23 March 1956.
“Rev. King Tells Why He Paid Fine,” Baltimore Afro-American, 7 December 1957.
Testimony in State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr., 22 March 1956, in Papers 3:183–196.