SAYMA, Activists & Money: How Dr. King Almost Got Ten Years

Here’s a quick racial justice history lesson, with a moral:

In January, 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was indicted by an Alabama grand jury on two counts of felony perjury, charges that could have tossed him into one of the state’s rotten, segregated penitentiaries for up to ten years.

This case is forgotten now, but was a harrowing, months-long  ordeal for King.

The indictment charged that King had evaded taxes on $45,000 of donation income from his civil rights work after the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and had perjured himself by signing false state tax returns.

Alabama Governor John Patterson, who aimed to have Dr. King locked up for several years.

The segregationist state administration of Governor John Patterson thought the indictment was a slam dunk, their chance to take King off the board for maybe the next decade.

The trial started in May, 1960. King wrote of it,

“This case was tried before an all-white Southern jury. All of the State’s witnesses were white. The judge and the prosecutor were white. The courtroom was segregated. Passions were inflamed. Feelings ran high. The press and other communications media were hostile. Defeat seemed certain, and we in the freedom struggle braced ourselves for the inevitable.”

The personal impact also went deep: King was often depressed  about his prospects. The case

. . . attacked a core aspect of [King’s] self-image and of his reputation—his honesty. He acknowledged as much. His wife Coretta recalled that the case brought with it the greatest suffering of any event in her husband’s life up until that time: “[D]espite all of the bravery he had shown before, under personal abuse and character assaults . . . this attack on his personal honesty hurt him most.” Dr. King’s greatest fear was that his reputation for honesty would be destroyed with a conviction, replaced by the public image of a greedy liar who was out for himself.

If he went down, King knew the movement and its organizations would be tarred as well.

But King wouldn’t go down without a fight. Movement friends raised money to hire two top black defense lawyers.

And it turned out King had a secret weapon: he had long kept a detailed diary of his expenses. This, plus receipts and paperwork, showed that almost all the money involved came as reimbursements for the near-constant travel King was called to do for civil rights work. And reimbursements were not income, and were non-taxable. His returns were not false, his taxes were not evaded.

After a grueling six-day trial, on May 29, 1960 the case went to the all-white jury.

Dr. King after his surprise acquittal, May 29, 1960.

It deliberated for less than four hours and then — acquitted King on both charges.

Legal historians still puzzle over some aspects of the outcome: why so quick?

Clearly King’s attorneys were superb. And with his diary and other records, they showed convincingly there was no evidence of fraud. And maybe even white segregationist Alabamians, like many other Americans, disliked taxes almost as much as they hated Dr. King.

Governor Patterson, a shrill racist (who later said he repented), consoled himself with the news that Dr. King was leaving Alabama, moving home to Atlanta. Patterson figured King would be kept busy there, and Alabama would be free of his “outside agitation.”

That mostly worked. Other than the Birmingham and Selma campaigns, in 1963 and 1965, Dr. King pretty much left Alabama alone. . . .

Now, I said this was a history lesson with a moral. That moral comes with intense contemporary value and it is this: financial integrity is effective anti-racist work.

Dr. King beat back the indictments, and a long prison sentence, because he had kept detailed track of years of activist expenses, which helped the lawyers put together an impregnable defense.

There could be many other case studies, perhaps less dramatic, but which make the same point: financial probity in activist and religious groups protects them, their participants and their grantees both from outside attacks and (just as destructive) internal suspicion, corruption, and conflict.

And letting them slide, or buying the illusion that some are peddling today that such standards are tools of oppression, are a recipe for personal and organizational turmoil and failure.

This lesson has direct applicability for today’s activists, and particularly for Quakers with concern for equity. Let me repeat it: financial integrity is effective anti-racist work.

This is a policy that is of universal import.

But SAYMA, I’m looking especially at you.


The next post in this series is here.


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