Editor’s Note: Forty-eight years and two months after his speech for the ages, the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. will once again ring out over the National Mall in the nation’s capitol this Sunday as the memorial to him is dedicated.
The attorneys who staffed the NAACP legal Defense and Educational Fund during the 1950s and 1960s – among them, Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, and Jack Greenberg – all knew King well. They defended him and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in court dozens of times against the hostile state and local governments of the South In his powerful history of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Crusaders in the Court: How A Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution, Jack Greenberg discusses the relationship between King and SCLC and LDF. We present some of those passages here.
[p. 8:] – “When a great leader of the mass movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged, LDF was his lawyer. Through the 1960s, usually in company with local black lawyers, some of whom had been Houston’s students, the LDF defended the movement, student sit-in demonstrators, Freedom Riders and well as movement leaders such as Drs. King, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and Hosea Williams, and won virtually all of the thousands of cases it tried.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
[pp. 212-3:] – the Montgomery Bus Boycott: Rosa Parks’ “impulsive act of defiance was the impetus behind the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr. The entire black community refused to patronize the busses until they reformed their discriminatory seating practices. Dr. King was catapulted into world prominence. … Bob Carter [ Robert L. Carter, later appointed by President Nixon as a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ] , assisting Arthur Shores and two newly admitted lawyers, Fred Gray and Ozell Billingsley (the three were perhaps half the black bar of Alabama) , defended Parks and King against prosecution for leading the boycott. Both were convicted, but lost the right to appeal because their Alabama lawyers filed their papers late. But, before Alabama could carry out their punishment, we won another case in the Supreme Court in November 1956, holding segregation on Montgomery busses unconstitutional — a rejection of Plessy, which also had been an intrastate transportation case. That ended the boycott; there was nothing left to boycott and there was no way to prosecute the former boycotters successfully.”
[pp. 267 - 8:] — “Although none of us knew it at the time, Brown marked the end of that phase of the civil rights struggle where all our important victories were won in court. By 1960, six years after Brown, the ‘spirit of revolt’ … was a nationwide phenomenon. … This new spirit led to sit-ins; spread to the Freedom Rides; gave birth to the demand for full equality in all aspects of American life that in its nonviolent expression was personified by Martin Luther King, Jr.; and made inevitable the historic civil rights legislation of 1964 and beyond.
“Before the [Civil Rights Movement] developed, nearly all advances in racial justice came through the courts. Only two important exceptions of national significance come to mind – the desegregation of the United States armed forces and the opening up of major league baseball to black Americans. Therefore, NAACP and LDF decisions about which cases to promote and which to decline – constrained by our limited resources and policy judgments – were crucial in setting the only national agenda in civil rights, and, as a consequence, in determining the direction the progress would take.
“After Brown, and partly because of it, all that changed. It took five years to incubate, but beginning in 1960 the movement began a pervasive transformation of America with regard to race, not merely in constitutional law, but in the ways people treated each other, whether mandated by law or not.
“While much of the action was spontaneous and not centrally directed, national groups arose to help organize things. Joining the NAACP in trying to channel the discontent constructively were Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); local groups like the Albany (Georgia) Movement and COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) in Mississippi, and paramilitary organizations like the Black Panthers.
“The new associations did not at first think of courts and laws for redress of their grievances. They focused on direct nonviolent action taking … But all of the groups usually turned to LDF for legal assistance, which we gave readily. In time, the groups would often make arrangements with us for representation in advance of their demonstrations, although during the first years of the movement, we reacted as we went along. …. [This] changed the nature of our legal practice. Where previously we had taken the initiative, carefully choosing the issues and arenas we considered propitious, now we had to respond to situations the demonstrators had created. They made demands of society and when those demands were unmet, they invented and carried out forms of protest without much regard to whether or not their actions were defensible within the current state of the law, often conducting themselves in ways the law had never before addressed.”
[p.269] — As a result, “we had to create or reshape procedures to protect those who sat at lunch counters, paraded at statehouses, occupied forbidden spaces on buses, and, on the occasion of one world-famous event, to protect those who decided, at our suggestion, to escape the jurisdiction of a hostile federal judge by marching from Selma to Montgomery.
“Sometimes LDF lawyers were the only nonthreatening human contact protesters had as they moldered in jails. Often our motions, injunctions, and bail applications secured their release from appalling prisons, which for racial protesters could be especially dangerous, even fatal. At the same time, we continued our earlier struggles, getting blacks into nonsegregated schools and universities that … were still refusing to treat their admission applications seriously. .”
[p. 282] – “As 1961 began John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. He had courted the black vote during the campaign, most dramatically by telephoning Martin Luther King, Jr.’s wife, Coretta, while King was in jail for a combination of traffic and demonstration offenses, in which LDF lawyers had been among those representing him for more than a year. King was by then a major national figure, principally because of the leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott. He was doubly important to Kennedy because his father was a leading Baptists preacher in Atlanta and had a large following.
“King’s troubles had begun in May 1960, when he was arrested for driving in Georgia with an Alabama driver’s license, even though he was a Georgia resident. The real reason for King’s arrest was that he had become a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, and because, on this particular occasion, he was in the car with Lillian Smith, the white Southern author of Strange Fruit, the powerful antiracist novel. The judge sentenced King to twelve months of labor, which he suspended, and a $25 fine.
“In October King was jailed for demonstrating at an elegant Atlanta restaurant. For having committed that crime while under the suspension of the traffic offense sentence, he was locked up in the state’s maximum security prison at Reidsville. John F. Kennedy telephoned Coretta to express sympathy, scoring a great political coup in the presidential campaign. Robert Kennedy called the judge, who released King on $2,000 bond.
“During all of this, Donald Hollowell and Horace Ward represented King, and we worked with them every step of the way.”
[p. 285:] – “We at LDF never thought of ourselves as practicing in an ivory tower, far removed from the stresses and strains of real life. But whatever accoutrements of the legal academic life we may have enjoyed – conferring with scholars, probing research in depth, developing innovative theories – were quickly forgotten as the conveyor belt of the civil rights movement sped up exponentially with the advent of the 1960s. By 1961 we had seventeen hundred defendants – some in individual suits, others grouped in single cases – across the South. Old cases percolated upward to appellate courts and the United States Supreme Court as new ones were added.
“At the same time, demonstrations began taking a new shape, that of the Freedom Rides, making new claims on our commitment to provide legal help to all those who found themselves under attack because of their civil rights activities.”
[pp. 347-8]: “As the importance and the glamour of civil rights caught public attention, Northern lawyers began going south to volunteer, some excellent, some nondescript, some ineffective. We found ourselves in some cases with lawyers whose help was indispensable; but there were others with whom we didn’t get along or with whom we couldn’t agree on legal theory or approach to the courts. SCLC and other litigants would turn to us when volunteers went home, as almost all ultimately did. If we were to be the last resort, we needed control – where possible—over how demonstration law developed. We didn’t want conflicting theories and unattractive facts before the courts. We, like the NAACP, became sensitive to the Johnny-come-lately syndrome. Where had the others been when the work was unglamorous and unrewarding? Where would they be tomorrow?
“In early 1963, as the legal problems of the SCLC grew, I met with Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, and other SCLC staff in a Washington, D.C, church. SCLC had concluded that it couldn’t function by relying only on a few friends and lawyers whom they would pick up as they went along, but it made no sense for them to set up a legal staff. They had limited funds and no expertise at running a legal program. LDF had represented Martin in the Montgomery bus boycott, during the Freedom Rides, and when he had been jailed for driving without a Georgia license, and it was natural for him to turn to us. But SCLC leadership was a mixed group, and some younger leaders were afraid that we were a bunch of establishment lawyers who would be telling them how to run the movement. Some identified us with the NAACP, which they viewed as unsympathetic. Our low-key approach, which kept lawyers out of demonstrations and avoided court-bashing pronouncements, lent credence to that view.
“During the meeting, Martin said little, essentially allowing his staff to talk its way through the problem. They were reassured when I made it clear that we were independent of the NAACP. We promised that we never would tell them what to do, only inform them of the likely legal consequences. Under these conditions it was easy for SCLC to agree that, wherever possible, LDF would handle all their cases and would have legal control of those cases. From then on SCLC was represented almost exclusively by LDF.”