Edgar Dyer, a university administrator in South Carolina, was reading his hometown newspaper’s coverage of Martin Luther King Jr. Day about 10 years ago when he noticed something unusual in a timeline of key events in King’s life.
In 1960, the newspaper said, an all-white jury in Montgomery, Ala., acquitted King of tax and fraud charges.
“That can’t be right,” Mr. Dyer thought.
The next day, he set out to find more so he could contact the newspaper’s editor and suggest a correction. While Mr. Dyer, now chief operating officer for Coastal Carolina University, learned that the acquittal was true, he found only scant mentions of the case in King biographies.
Yet the idea that an all-white jury in Alabama acquitted King, following the Montgomery bus boycotts, took a hold of Mr. Dyer. So he set about to learn more. Years later, after interviewing a former Alabama governor and one of King’s attorneys, not to mention uncovering a letter to King from baseball great Jackie Robinson, Mr. Dyer reported his findings.
The result, published in the Journal of African American History in 2003, chronicles the little-told story of a trial that restored King’s faith in the American judicial system and kept him out of prison during the most productive years of the civil rights movement.
With the public opening this week of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, it’s worth noting that King’s legacy might have turned out altogether differently had the Alabama jury convicted King, as many, including King, expected.
“If he had been convicted, he would have gone to prison there,” Mr. Dyer said in a recent phone interview. “And he was on probation in Georgia, so he would have had to have gone back there to prison. He would have been out of the movement for four to six years at a crucial time.”
Mr. Dyer began his quest to try to reconstruct the trial by contacting research institutions from Georgia to California and reviewing media accounts of the case. Still, there were a lot of dead ends when he looked for firsthand accounts.
He tried to get transcripts, but after many phone calls to the courthouse, he learned that no transcripts existed. He tracked down a list of the jurors and, one by one, contacted their families. But all of the jurors had died.
Finally, Mr. Dyer got a chance to interview Fred Gray, one of King’s attorneys, who is perhaps best known for having represented Rosa Parks. Mr. Dyer drove to Tuskegee, Ala., and spent three hours talking with Mr. Gray, who recounted the trial in his own autobiography.
“No one would have predicted that an all-white jury in Montgomery, Alabama, the Cradle of the Confederacy, in May 1960, in the middle of all of the sit-ins and all of the racial tension … would exonerate Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Mr. Gray wrote. “But it really happened.”
In a phone interview Thursday, Mr. Gray added, “If they had gotten a conviction of him, the whole history of the civil rights movement could have been different.
“As that memorial is being unveiled,” he added, “what we need to realize is that there are literally thousands of individuals … whose names never appeared in print and whose faces never appeared on television who helped lay the foundation so we can honor Dr. King.”
During his research, Mr. Dyer also came across a letter to King from Jackie Robinson, then recently retired from his Hall of Fame baseball career. Robinson referred to the case against King as “a farce trial.”
King was charged with listing his income as $9,150 instead of what the state alleged — $16,162 — according to newspaper reports. Another of King’s attorneys, W. Robert Ming Jr., argued that the state used “fraudulent techniques.” In his closing arguments, Ming didn’t focus on King’s race. Instead, he told the jury that a guilty verdict would set a disturbing precedent.
“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,” Ming was quoted as telling jurors before deliberations.
Deliberating for less than four hours, the all-white jury issued its not guilty verdict on May 28, 1960.
Coretta Scott King later said in her own book that “a southern jury of 12 white men had acquitted Martin. It was a triumph of justice, a miracle that restored your faith in human good.”
King later called the verdict a turning point in his life. In the foreword to the book “Deep in My Heart” by William Kunstler, King wrote that “defeat seemed certain, and we in the freedom movement braced ourselves for the inevitable.”
Ironically, Ming would later go to prison on tax charges, and King’s father, along with many other notable supporters, wrote to the U.S. Parole Board in hopes of freeing him.
“In the days when my son Martin Luther King Jr. lived and was struggling in what proved to be his destined way to bring full freedom to black citizens in their own country, Bob Ming came to the legal assistance of Martin, Ralph D. Abernathy and others who worked with them,” he wrote in the March 23, 1973, letter, now archived at Howard University.
Ming died not longer after the 1973 letter after a fall in a prison shower.
One of Mr. Dyer’s last interviews was with former Alabama Gov. John Patterson. The former governor told Mr. Dyer that he remembered how the prosecutor and revenue commissioner didn’t want to pursue a trial against King, but that they followed orders.
Expressing remorse,” Mr. Patterson called the trial “a dumb thing to do … and it made me look foolish,” Mr. Dyer wrote in his paper.