Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was arrested at least 30 times in various civil rights protest actions. Possibly the most famous was in Birmingham, Alabama, which is where he composed his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in 1963. That was one of many places where he was taken into police custody, and now one court system that put Dr. King in handcuffs — Fulton County, Georgia — has decided to make it right more than five decades his death.
Fulton County Solicitor General Keith Gammage is expunging King’s criminal record in that jurisdiction, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Gammage has actually cleared the records of more than 3,000 people with non-violent and low-level offenses since taking office in 2017.
“I always had in my mind, what effect would it have if we expunged the record for arrests of Martin Luther King Jr. and the other civil rights protestors and called those arrests what they were – unconstitutional and biased arrests?” Gammage told the AJC. “There is a gap between social justice-related protests and activism and a true criminal offense. And what the protesters and activists were fighting for, remains a barrier for other citizens today.”
King was first arrested in January 1956 in Montgomery, Ala., during the bus boycott that is seen historically as one of the catalysts of the Civil Rights Movement. That began a series of arrests throughout the south as he led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in bringing an army of human rights activists together to turn back social and legalized discrimination.
But in 1960, King’s arrests in Georgia, which took place after he moved back to Atlanta, were an attempt by authorities to target him over the actions he had become known for as a young civil rights leader.
On October 19 of that year. he and 25 others including Lonnie King, Herschelle Sullivan and Julian Bond were arrested at Rich’s department store in downtown Atlanta while protesting denial of services. The arrest started a legal chain reaction that included a violation of probation in DeKalb County and landed him in Georgia State Penitentiary.
King was released when Robert F. Kennedy intervened on his behalf. His father, Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., a longtime Republican then publicly endorsed Kennedy’s brother, John, who went on to win the 1960 presidential election.
Although Gammage can only expunge King’s arrest record in Fulton County, he hopes it will have a ripple effect.
“I would be a proponent of starting the conversation in Fulton and encouraging others to do the same,” said Gammage, who cleared the move with King’s family. He says that he would like to see other Civil Rights leaders who were arrested in the same motions have their records cleared, too.
But he also has made a point of using his power to clear the records of lesser-known people whose lives have been unduly burdened by an overly punitive criminal justice system. “Some of the people whose records we expunged were in their 70s who couldn’t get into senior housing for an arrest 20 years earlier for a $15 bad check or stealing a loaf of bread,” he said. “What people have said it has been removing a yoke from around their necks.
“This could be a clarion call for other people that they could have their records cleaned and cleared and have a second chance at the American dream,” said Gammage.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 52 years ago Saturday, April 4, 1968 in Memphis. He was 39.