How Martin Luther King Jr.'s Groundless Traffic Ticket Changed History's CourseRoundup
tags: civil rights, politics, Voting, Martin Luther King Jr
Michael Warren is an editor on the AP’s South Desk and a contributor to the Race and Ethnicity team. Warren also has been a volunteer mentor to Decatur High School students as they prepare to apply for a historical marker at the site where King was sentenced.
The AP reported on Oct. 25, 1960, that over 300 people crowded into the Decatur courtroom to watch Judge J. Oscar Mitchell sentence King to four months, even though King’s Alabama license was valid until 1962.
“I watched in horror as Martin was immediately taken from the courtroom, his hands in metal cuffs behind his back,” Mrs. King recalled in her autobiography. “Martin later told me that the terrors of southern justice, wherein scores of black men were plucked from their cells and never seen again, ran through his mind.”
King urged his wife to be strong in a letter from a Georgia prison. Three years before “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote: “this is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people.”
With days left in the race, the campaigns of Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy sought to downplay civil rights issues for fear of losing southern white votes.
African Americans had mostly voted Republican, since Abraham Lincoln. Nixon had just been endorsed by Martin Luther King Sr., the leader of Ebenezer Baptist Church. But Nixon ignored their pleas for help, while Kennedy called Mrs. King to express his sympathy.
Historians Taylor Branch and David Garrow wrote that Robert F. Kennedy threw a fit, telling aides who fed Mrs. King’s number to his brother that they cost him the presidency. But Robert Kennedy called Mitchell, who reversed his denial of bond, immediately freeing King.
King’s father switched his endorsement, saying Kennedy had “the moral courage to stand up for what’s right.” That quote, and others, appeared in a blue-papered pamphlet titled “No Comment Nixon Versus a Candidate with a Heart, Senator Kennedy.” Unnoticed by the national media, Kennedy aides and King supporters distributed the pamphlet in black churches around the nation the Sunday before Election Day.
Black people had voted 60-40 Republican just four years earlier; this time they voted 70-30 for the Democrat, providing more than enough for Kennedy to win the electoral college and the popular vote by a narrow 113,000 margin nationwide, according to Theodore H. White in “The Making of the Presidency 1960.”