In a 29 October letter, Hurlburt expressed her ambivalence over the jail sentences given to two segregationists for their roles in the 7 September bombing of the Little Rock Board of Education building.1 Hurlburt explained that as a FOR member she supported integration but “the idea of these two young, ignorant, and impetuous (to say nothing of the fact that they were probably being ‘used’) men going to the penitentiary for many years, doesn’t seem to be the answer either.” She asked that King write the judge recommending probation “to redeem some of the miseries we are all sharing.”
Mrs. G. W. Hurlburt
2269 Grandview Avenue
Cleveland Heights 6, Ohio
Dear Mrs. Hurlburt:
On returning to the office I found your letter of October 28, on my desk making inquiry of my attitude concerning the penalties given the young men for bombing the Little Rock Board of Education Building.
This is certainly an important issue that you raise and one that would require a very detailed discussion. However, I will try to give you my views in as simple a statement as possible. It seems to me that the court system with its juries and judges is the best answer that society has worked out to deal with an offender. This does not mean that the system is perfect, for ultimately judgement is left in the hands of God. But society must have some system by which it controls and regulates behaviour. Those individuals who trespass the laws of society are arrested to demonstrate to others that no one is to go beyond certain fixed boundaries. Now I must stress the fact that when an individual arrested for a criminal act he is not being paid back for what he has done, but he is being placed in a position to be improved. Ultimately punishment must be for the improvement of criminal rather than an act of retribution. This is the view of modern criminology and I wholeheartedly agree with it.
Now I certainly agree with you that these men are not wholeheartedly responsible for their acts. They are the victims of the system. And in a sense Governor Faubus and all of the other people who have made irresponsible statements and resisted integration are responsible for the acts of violence that some people commit. I also agree with you that justice must be tempered with mercy. But even after conceding these points I think it would have been a mistake to allow these men to go scotch free. Such an act would only have given other violent forces in the community an excuse, and even a justification to follow through on acts of terror.
This is about as simple an answer as I can give. I hope that it will prove helpful in some way. I appreciate your great moral concern and your deep commitment to the ideal of brotherhood.
Very sincerely yours,
Martin L. King, Jr.
1. On 28 October the court sentenced Jesse Raymond Perry to three years in prison; J. D. Sims had earlier turned state’s evidence, pled guilty, and was sentenced to five years. Three more men were tried later and also found guilty of participating in the bombings. Governor Orval Faubus commuted the sentences of the convicted men, while Sims served nearly two years before being released on parole (“Little Rock Bomber Given 3-Year Term,” New York Times, 29 October 1959, and “Bombing Case Figure’s Rights Are Restored,” Arkansas Gazette, 13 April 1962). Antoinette Katherine Bolek Hurlburt (1892–1977) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended Ohio University.
MLKP, MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.