Several months after being served with a complaint in connection with Alabama governor John Patterson's libel suit, King forwarded it to his attorney, Fred Gray.1 On 9 December Gray responded that he was "very sorry that you did not send us this complaint immediately," noting that "the law requires that some type of answer or responsive pleading be filed in matters of this sort within thirty days." In the letter below, King explains why he did not respond more promptly. Patterson's attorneys later advised him to drop his case after the Supreme Court ruled against another Alabama official in 1964.2
Attorney Fred D. Gray
34 North Perry Street
I am in receipt of your letter of recent date concerning the copy of the complaint that was sent me through the mail. Frankly, I did not pay any real attention to this complaint when it was received for two reasons. First, I had been told that I could not be served since I lived outside of the State of Alabama. Second, I knew that I had not signed the ad in the New York Times, and, therefore, felt that the whole thing was a mistake. If I had known that the papers constituted a legitimate service, I would have immediately sought legal advice.
I would like for you to look into this matter immediately. Although I do not have the definite time that the papers came to Atlanta, I do remember picking the letter up from the Post Office on May 17, 1960. Consequently, it must have been mailed five or six days before that time.
Please let me know as soon as possible what I will be expected to do when the trial comes up. I am sure you can understand how anxious I am to have this whole matter cleared up because I have several speaking commitments in Alabama next year.3
Very sincerely yours,
Martin Luther King, Jr.
1. Dora McDonald to Gray, 5 December 1960. On 30 May Patterson filed suit against the New York Times, King, Joseph Lowery, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and S. S. Seay. For more on the libel charge, see Patterson to King, 9 May 1960, pp. 456-458 in this volume.
2. Patterson, Interview with King Papers Project staff, 18 July 2001 (see also New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 ).
3. In his 12 January 1961 reply Gray assured King that his legal team was working on the matter but advised him not "to come into the state."
MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.