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He married in 1941, taught law at Howard University and rose fast through the ranks of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Among Mr. Ming’s manuscripts archived at the school are notes he scrawled as a young lawyer, after learning of the firebombing of the home of a black family on Harvard Street in Northwest in April 1940.

A member of the NAACP’s national legal committee, Mr. Ming urged the Justice Department to investigate. For decades, he kept a note that had been sent to the home saying: “Negroes shall not live among us white people and destroy the value of our property. Better move quick. Not safe to wait for a second warning. Remember you are a negro. Keep your place. Just a hint.”

Mr. Ming’s notes give no clue as to how the investigation ended, or if it ever began.

In 1943, after Mr. Ming entered the military during World War II, he was granted a furlough to argue an election-law case before the Supreme Court. At the time, he was an Army private.

“Unrecognized, he caused something of a stir as he strode through the marble halls of the building and, with briefcase in hand, was ushered into the inner sanctums of the highest court in the land,” reported the Chicago Defender. “Startled onlookers were told he was Robert (Bob) Ming.”

After leaving the military as a captain, Mr. Ming went home to Chicago, became the first black law professor at the University of Chicago and partnered in a private law firm. According to the NAACP, which still honors lawyers with an award in Mr. Ming’s name, he also worked closely with Mr. Marshall and others as one of the main architects in the Brown v. Board of Education litigation.

The 1954 Supreme Court ruling declared segregation in the nation’s schools “inherently unequal.” A few years later, Mr. Ming got a call saying he was needed in Alabama.

Unanimous decision

Despite Mr. Ming’s decades of work as a civil rights lawyer, ultimately two routine tax cases would come to shape his career. The first bolstered his reputation as one of the top legal minds in the country, and the second threatened to destroy it.

In February 1960, King was indicted on perjury charges related to tax evasion in Montgomery, Ala., the first such charge in state history, according to a 2003 account of the trial by King researcher Edgar Dyer in the Journal of African American History.

After leading the Montgomery bus boycotts years earlier, King was charged with listing his income as $9,150 instead of what the state alleged, $16,162, according to newspaper reports. But Mr. Ming argued that the state used “fraudulent techniques” to arrive at the figure. However, he and the rest of the legal team didn’t focus on King’s race during the trial, according to Mr. Dyer.

“If you men in the jury go home and add up your bank deposits and want the state to consider that your total income, which is taxable, then you will convict the defendant,” Mr. Ming was quoted as telling jurors before deliberations.

After deliberating for three hours and 45 minutes, the all-white jury issued its verdict on May 28, 1960: not guilty. King, perhaps stunned, was reportedly emotionless, while his wife, Coretta, and another lawyer, Hubert T. Delaney, cried.

Years later, King recalled the verdict as a “turning point” in his life, according to a forward he wrote in the book “Deep In My Heart” by the now-deceased activist lawyer William M. Kunstler.

“Defeat seemed certain, and we in the freedom struggle braced ourselves for the inevitable. There were two men among us who persevered with the conviction that it was possible, in this context, to marshal facts and law and thus win vindication,” he wrote, citing the names of Mr. Ming and Mr. Delaney.

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