Steven Church, 2015
On 3rd of September 1958, Martin Luther King, Jr. accompanied his closest friend, minister and civil rights activist Ralph David Abernathy, Sr. (1926-1990) to the Montgomery courthouse for the hearing of a case. King asked if he could speak with Abernathy's lawyer when he was told: "Boy, if you don't get the hell away from here, you will need a lawyer yourself." Two policemen rushed in, twisted King's arm behind his back, dragged him from the courthouse to the police station and put him into a cell. Ten minutes later, - as soon as they discovered who he was and learned that a news photographer had taken pictures of the arm-twisting arrest - officers hurried to his cell to release him. They also filed a charge against him for loitering which meant that King would pay a fine and the matter would be dropped. At his trial a few days later, he was found guilty of disobeying the police and was ordered to pay $14 if he did not want to serve 14 days in prison. "Your honor, I could not in all good conscience pay a fine for an act that I did not commit and above all for the brutal treatment I did not deserve." King chose prison. His choice became national news and a city commissioner (Police Commissioner Sellers) quickly paid the $14 fine (Jakoubek, 2005; Darby, 2005). Versions differ and according to a different source, King spent fourteen days in prison (Church, 2015).
Your Honor, you have no doubt rendered a decision which you believe to be just and right. Yet, I must reiterate that I am innocent. I was simply attempting to enter the court hearing of a beloved friend, and at no point was I loitering. I have been the victim of police brutality for no reason. I was snatched from the steps of the courthouse, pushed through the street while my arms were twisted, choked and even kicked. I spite of this, I hold no animosity or bitterness in my heart toward the arresting officers. I have compassion for them as brothers, and as fellow human beings made in the image of God. (...)Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for loitering ... or for being black. In fact, "vagrancy laws made it a crime to be a certain type of person" (via) and it was the Civil Rights Movement that largely brought their demise (via).
Martin Luther King, Jr., 5 September 1958 (cited in Carson, 2000)
"Vagrancy law became especially visible and toxic when law enforcement wielded it against the civil rights movement in the South. Arrests of Martin Luther King Jr. for vagrancy in Selma, Alabama, and Louisville, Kentucky, put the issue on the civil rights radar." Risa L. Goluboff
"Loitering laws-which make it illegal in certain public venues to stand in one spot doing nothing-are a lot like vagrancy laws in that they prohibit behavior that many of us engage in and therefore encourage discretionary (and discriminatory) action on the part of law enforcement." Kitty Calavita, 2016
"It is also the vague undefined nature of loitering combined with the impossibility of truly knowing or measuring subjective intent that has allowed anti-loitering laws and ordinanced to be used as a weapon against civil disobedience. Martin Luther King was arrested because anti-loitering laws on the books in Montgomery allowed the police, regardless of the facts of that day, to define King's presence, to shape his intent into something criminal, something they could use to control him. He was just attending a public trial. But anti-loitering laws allowed the police to arrest him for being black in a white space." Steven Church, 2015The photograph was taken by US photojournalist Charles Moore (1931-2010), one of the first photographers to document the rise of Martin Luther King. Moore covered the civil rights era and took photographs of the Birmingham riots, of protesters being tear-gassed in Selma... His photographs brought worldwide attention to the civil rights struggle and "helped to spur passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964" (via).
"In Charles Moore's iconic black-and-white photograph, Coretta looks on stoically, lips parted, hands clasped in front, as her husband Martin Luther King has his right arm bent behind his back by a police officer in a tall hat. Someone unseen, outside the frame, places a hand on Coretta's left arm, as if to comfort or contain her. Martin pitches forward over a counter, leaning to his right, his left hand splayed out for support on the polished surface. He wears a light-colored suit and tie, a panama hat with a black band. The force of the offcer's grip has nearly yanked the jacket off his right shoulder. The officer's left hand pushes against Martin's left side, bunching up his jacket, shoving him forward, bending him over the counter. Another officer stands behind Martin's right shoulder, but you can see only the top of his hat and his right arm resting casually on the counter. A hatless white officer stands behind the counter, and our perspective peers over his right shoulder into Martin's face. He doesn't look pained. Resigned perhaps, sadly familiar with this sort of treatment. The man behind the counter seems to be reaching out toward Martin with his left hand to take something or give something (a piece of paper perhaps) as his right arm blurs at the bottom edge of the frame. Martin, his eyes pulled all the way to the right is either looking at the man behind the counter or at someone else we can't see." Steven Church, 2015
The Chicago Tribune, 4 September 1958 (via):
Montogomery, Ala., Sept. 3
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a Negro minister widely known for his fight against segregation, was hustled into a cell Wednesday on a charge of loitering outside the city hall.
He was released from custody after about 15 minutes and allowed to sign a $100 bond. A hearing was et for Friday in City court. The maximum penalty for loitering is $100 fine and six months jail. King, who led the Negro boycott of segregated city buses in Montgomery two years ago, was arrested by two patrolmen outside the courtroom where another Negro integration leader, the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, was accusing a Negro attacking him.
Refused to Move
The arresting officers said King refused to move when they ordered him and a crowd of other Negroes to get away from the door leading from the street into the courtroom at City hall.
Meanwhile, the Negro accused of attacking Abernathy with a hatchet was bound over to the Grand Jury under $300 bond on a charge of assault with intent to murder. He was booked as Edward Davis of Montogomery.
Minister Denies Misconduct
Abernathy told police that Davis entered the church office and accused the minister of "carrying on an affair" with Davis' wife. Abernathy denied having anything to do with the man's wife.
After his release Wednesday, King accused arresting officers of brutality. He said they "tried to break my arm, they grabbed my collar and choked me, and when they got me to the cell, they kicked me in."
Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers denied the charge of brutality. He said King was "treated as anyone else would be and arrested as anyone else would be."
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- Calavita, K. (2016) Invitation to Law & Society. An Introduction to the Study of Real Law. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press
- Carson, C. (2000). The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume IV, Symbol of the Movement, January 1957-December 1958. Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press
- Church, S. (2015). Of Idleness. In: After Montaigne. Contemporary essayinsts cover the essays. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 91-
- Darby, J. (2005). Martin Luther King Jr. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications
- Jakoubek, R. E. (2005). Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights Leader. New York: Chelsea House
- photographs via and via and via