Fulton County Prosecutor in Georgia to Expunge MLK and Other Civil Rights Leaders’ Records, But not Everyone Agrees
On October 19, 1960, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested while taking part in the Atlanta Student Movement’s campaign of boycotts and sit-ins, in which he and others attempted to seek service at a whites-only dining room in the Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta, Georgia. Sixty years later, that arrest record could be expunged, but Dr. King himself, if he were still alive, might have objected.
Fulton County Solicitor General Keith Gammage said, “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 protesters, and called those arrests what they were—unconstitutional and biased arrests.”
Gammage, 48, born after King’s death, is on the board of trustees at King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“There is a gap between social justice-related protests and activism and a true criminal offense,” he said. “And what the protesters and activists were fighting for, remains a barrier for other citizens today.”
Gammage’s announcement of the proposed expungement came on the eve of the anniversary of King’s April 4, 1968 assassination. Not everyone attending agreed.
Gammage has said he’s had positive conversations with the King family regarding his plan and “wouldn’t do it without their full support.”
He went on to say, “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.” The expungement would cover only Fulton County arrests, but the Solicitor General said he would “encourage other jurisdictions to start similar discussions.”
Leading “Black Power Studies” scholar Peniel E. Joseph, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a member of the history department in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas, said King’s record should be cleared “as a matter of political and legal ethics.”
Joseph further proclaimed, “The record should be expunged in the sense that the society, and not Martin Luther King, Jr., were the ones guilty of crimes of violence and illegality against black bodies in that generation.” He suggested, “It’s important to recognize that as a corollary to expanding contemporary notions of guilt and innocence as we try to pursue expansive criminal justice reform in the state of Georgia and nationally.”
“King didn’t like to be arrested,” writes Clayborne Carson, a biographer of King. “He was not like John Lewis.” Referencing a conversation King shared with his wife Coretta Scott King, Carson memorializes Dr. King’s feelings — “the loneliness of prison was too much to bear.”
Carson’s biography describes King through Coretta’s eyes, “He just broke down and cried and then he felt so ashamed of himself. Even the Rich’s arrest, I don’t sense that he meant to get arrested when he came to Rich’s that day.”
The 1960 Atlanta arrest was a particularly troubling event for King. On May 4 of that year, about five months before the arrest, he was stopped in DeKalb County, allegedly because there was a white woman passenger in his car. The vehicle was borrowed and had an expired license plate. Dr. King had just moved back to Georgia and was still using his Alabama driver’s license. He was given a ticket and allowed to drive on. Then, on September 23, he appeared at the DeKalb County civil and criminal court to resolve the ticket. The Judge dismissed the charge on the expired plates but fined King $25 and put him on probation for the lack of a Georgia license. The probation required that he “shall not violate any Federal or State penal statutes or municipal ordinances for one year.”
It is not clear whether King knew he was still on probation when he accompanied Lonnie King, Julian Bond, and Herschelle Sullivan to the Rich’s protest where all were formally arrested.
Lonnie King said later, “I indicated to him that he was going to have to go to jail if he intended to maintain his position as one of the leaders of the civil rights struggle.” Apparently King was somewhat reluctant to go with the students. “The consequences for him were greater than the students,” said Carson.
King, over his brief 39 years on Earth, was arrested more than two dozen times. The arrest at Rich’s violated his DeKalb probation and was one of only two felony charges he received. The second felony, later acquitted, was for tax fraud in Alabama.
For the DeKalb charge, King was sentenced to four months in jail. Shortly after being sentenced, he was awakened in his cell at 3:30 a.m., put in handcuffs and leg irons, and transported in the backseat of a police car to the Georgia State Prison, Reidsville. “Reidsville was very traumatic for him,” Carson said. “They didn’t tell him where he was being transferred to. He didn’t know if they were going to beat him or kill him, or whether it was meant to scare him. They certainly accomplished that.”
Vice President Richard Nixon, then running for president, refused to intervene on King’s behalf. His Democratic rival, John F. Kennedy, did however. Robert Kennedy called the judge, and King was subsequently released.
Biographer Carson and Auburn University professor Bernard LaFayette each have a slightly “different take” on the expungement process. LaFayette said, “I wouldn’t want mine expunged. That is part of my history as a civil rights worker. Our arrests were for challenging the segregation system. That was necessary in order to change the conditions.” LaFayette was arrested 30 times for civil rights activities.
Regarding expungement, Carson suggested, “It is really a good idea to do that in a massive way. When you do the time, you pay your debt, that should be the end. Unfortunately, it’s not.”
While Carson was a UCLA student in the 1960s, he was arrested twice, but even he is not positive he would want his own record expunged. “It is a badge of honor and it doesn’t change the historical reality that you were arrested,” Carson said.
The civil rights movement expungements are only a relatively small part of Gammage’s crusade to remove “the yoke of misdemeanor convictions that often shackle people years after the fact.”
Gammage went on to say, “Some of the people whose record we expunged were in their 70’s who couldn’t get into senior housing for an arrest 20 years earlier for a $15 bad check or stealing a loaf of bread.… it has been removing a yoke from around their necks.” Since his election in 2016, Gammage has cleared the records of more than 3,000 people.
Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project, said, “Even posthumously, this will send a signal and educate people about the impact of the criminal justice system. If Dr. King had that issue with all of who he was, think of how much impact this is for people poor and people of color who don’t have access?”