DECATUR, Ga. (AP) — On this day 60 years ago, a black man driving a white woman was pulled over in a traffic stop that would change the course of American history. The incident was unknown to most at the time and has been largely forgotten. The man was Martin Luther King Jr., and his citation on May 4, 1960, led to him being sentenced, illegally, to a chain gang.
Georgia’s segregationist politicians sought to silence King before he could mobilize great masses of people. But it backfired. King proved to be the catalyst for change, said Maurice C. Daniels, who wrote a biography of King's lawyer, “Saving the Soul of Georgia: Donald L. Hollowell and the Struggle for Civil Rights.”
“Here we are in 2020 and we see there are systemic, institutionalized mechanisms, just as there were in 1960, to stall, derail and to deny citizens their franchise," Daniels said.
Alicia Garza, of the Black Futures Lab, sees lessons for today’s activists. "That story means everything,” Garza said.
King and his wife, Coretta, hosted the writer Lillian Smith for dinner and he was driving her back to Emory University for her cancer treatments when they were pulled over in DeKalb County, just outside Atlanta.
Smith later wrote that they were stopped because the officer saw her white face with a black man. But King may have been followed: The Associated Press had reported that Georgia’s segregationist Gov. Ernest Vandiver vowed to keep the Montgomery bus boycott leader “under surveillance at all times.”
King paid a $25 fine that September to settle the false charge of driving without a license, but said he wasn’t aware that he was put on probation, threatening prison if he broke any laws.
Days later, King joined the Atlanta Student Movement ’s sit-ins campaign, and was charged with trespassing in a whites-only restaurant at Rich’s Department store.
Atlanta's leaders soon buckled as Fulton County’s jails filled, agreeing to desegregate in exchange for ending the boycotts crippling white-owned businesses. Charges were dropped and everyone was freed — except King.
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,” Coretta Scott 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.”