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From Harris Wofford

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Author: Wofford, Harris (Notre Dame. Law School)

Date: April 1, 1960

Location: Notre Dame, Ind.

Genre: Letter

Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Arrests

Student movements


Civil rights attorney Harris Wofford offers “sharp criticism” of an appeal for funds that appeared in the 29 March New York Times.1 Placed by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, the advertisement described King as “the one man who, more than any other, symbolizes the new spirit now sweeping the South.” Wofford suggests that the fund-raising effort should focus on student activists and argues that “the very name of the committee is a mistake and demeans you.” He urges King to demonstrate his “confidence and independence, showing that you are not in any sense the puppet of a northern organization.”2

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church
407 Auburn Avenue, N.E.
Atlanta, Georgia

Dear Martin:

I have been trying to get you for a couple of days on the telephone. The March 29 full-page ad in the New York Times is a significant move, and I trust on balance a good one. Of course I support strongly an appeal for support from the North. But I am most concerned by the way part of this ad—fortunately only part of it—is pegged on you and your tax case. It seems to me that this turns you into a kind of Scottsboro boy, not a man who is master of his fate.3

I do not think that your problem should be equated with that of the students and others who have been arrested in the demonstrations. Not only are the legal problems different, but your stature—as the leader and symbol of this movement—is different. The students will need a battery of lawyers and the widespread legal defense will require adequate financing.

But I think you would give greater dignity to your case if you did not permit solicitation of funds on your behalf, but conducted your own defense independently and courageously. I do not mean to suggest that you should not have adequate legal counsel. In a complicated case such as this you need the best counsel possible. But I am sure that you could get distinguished leaders of the American Bar to join in your legal defense without any such solicitation of funds or reimbursement to them. A friend of mine is convinced that Thomas K. Finletter, one of New York’s top lawyers, former Secretary of the Air Force, would serve as counsel, and I am sure that a distinguished Republican lawyer would be prepared to join Finletter if that seemed indicated. Shad Polier, who is one of the men signing the appeal in the Times is himself a sharp lawyer.4 I would think that a good lawyer from my former firm, Covington and Burling, might be available. I think such an unpaid legal committee in this situation would be far, far better than the approach suggested by the “Committee To Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South.”

How I wish we were closer or that we used the telephone more to each other! Because I am convinced that the tone of the ad, when it touches you, and the very name of the committee is a mistake and demeans you. If we were talking I would try to make the case for the following immediate action on your part: A letter to the New York Times and to the committee stating that you do not want any of the funds collected to be used for your own legal defense, that you deeply appreciate the support being offered to you but that on reflection you feel that the focus of the committee should be wholly on the defense of the students and others arrested in the demonstrations, and that you are asking that this be made clear to all contributors. You could add your own strong plea for support to the demonstrators. If you want to arrange in advance for the organization of a separate legal defense committee for you, I think that could be done promptly.

One reason I urge such action is that I think the one damaging part of your Alabama tax case is the implication to the public that, according to the “Where there is smoke there is fire” reasoning, you may have appropriated some of the funds collected for the bus boycott for your own purposes. I am sure there is not a penny of truth in this, but I think an appeal for funds for your defense compounds any suspicion that has been cast by this strategem of the State of Alamama.

I think an action on your part demonstrating your confidence and independence, showing that you are not in any sense the puppet of a northern organization appearing to be running your affairs, and renouncing any financial aid for yourself, would add to your stature, and would in fact contribute to the success of the committee soliciting support from the public. In fact, if I were a member of the committee I would use such a renunciation by you as the occasion for another ad strengthening the appeal for support to the students.

Let me suggest that some time soon you try to talk with a good friend of mine, a very astute public relations man, Ed Greenfield, who would be a good one for you to talk over things like this (with) from time to time. Greenfield could help you with your money-raising and other problems. He is the one who was, and I think still is, interested in our old idea of an institute for the study of race relations and (in) their world wide aspects, and was instrumental in getting Finletter to propose this in his commencement address at Hampton Institute several years ago. Greenfield's number and address is as follows in case you want to get in touch with him directly;

Edward L. Greenfield
Edward L. Greenfield & Co.
501 Madison Avenue
N.Y. 22, N.Y.
Phone: PLaza 9-6535

Forgive the sharp criticism in this note at a moment when something big has happened, but I trust that you expect from me a full and honest reaction.

Thanks for calling me from Chicago the other day. It was great hearing your voice. These are historic days in the South, and I have confidence that the creative role you are playing is just beginning.

Love to Coretta.

As ever,
[signed] Harris
Harris Wofford
Associate Professor


1. The advertisement, titled “Heed Their Rising Voices,” also rankled NAACP officials (for a facsimile of the advertisement, see p. 382 in this volume). In an 8 April memo to Wilkins, NAACP program director James Farmer characterized it as “a thoroughly dishonest and deceptive appeal” and suggested that Randolph and King “be privately taken to task.” For further reactions, see John Malcolm Patterson to King, 9 May 1960, pp. 456-458 in this volume.

2. The appeal indicated that any monies raised would be divided among King’s defense, support for the student protesters, and the voting rights struggle. For more on the disbursement of funds, see King to Jackie Robinson, 19 June 1960, pp. 475-478 in this volume.

3. The “Scottsboro boys” were nine black youths aged thirteen to twenty, who in 1931 were accused of rape by two white women. Their case became a cause célèbre after the Communist-affiliated International Labor Defense (ILD) took over their legal defense and initiated an international protest campaign.

4. Polier was one of the lawyers in the Scottsboro case and later served on the executive board of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. During the 1940s he became involved with the American Jewish Congress (AJC). His wife, Justine Wise Polier, who served as judge of the New York state family court from 1935 to 1973, was the daughter of prominent rabbi and AJC founder Stephen Wise.

Source: MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.

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