Thursday, August 25, 2011

On Dr. King, Senator Kennedy, and Lillian Smith

The 43rd Lillian Sm
ith Book Awards were presented on Sunday, September 4, 2011 at the Old DeKalb County Courthouse in Decatur, Georgia. The choice of this venue is deeply ironic.

It was in this building on September 23, 1960 that Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before Judge J. Oscar Mitchell, who sentenced him to a fine and probation for a minor traffic offense. There is now some question about whether Dr. King was thoroughly informed about the terms of his probation.

A few weeks later, Dr. King and others were arrested for trespassing when they refused to leave the restaurant at Rich's department store after being refused service. Judge Mitchell promptly scheduled a hearing on whether Dr. King had violated the terms of his probation. Attorney Donald Hollowell immediately responded by appealing Dr. King's original traffic conviction. Judge Mitchell nevertheless revoked the probation, denied Hollowell's request for an appeal bond, and sentenced Dr. King to a term of four months at the Georgia State Prison at Reidsville.

Ms. King was convinced that her husband would never get out of Reidsvile Prison alive. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy telephoned Ms. King to comfort her. His brother Robert Kennedy called Judge Mitchell and suggested to him that all defendants had a right to be released on bond pending appeal. A few days later, Judge Mitchell changed his mind and granted an appeal bond, and Dr. King was released from Reidsville Prison.

At a rally that night, Daddy King proclaimed that he had changed his mind and would be voting for John Kennedy for President, and the younger King declared that he held Senator Kennedy in very high esteem, later declaring that Senator Kennedy had exhibited moral courage of a high order. These pronouncements are widely credited with influencing the outcome of that year's Presidential election.

All of these events were set in motion on May 4, 1960, when Dr. King was stopped in DeKalb County and cited for driving a borrowed car with expired plates, and for not having exchanged his Alabama driver's license for a Georgia license within 90 days after changing his residence from Montgomery to Atlanta. At the time of this traffic stop, Dr. King was on his way to Emory University Hospital. His passenger that day was a cancer patient by the name of Lillian Smith.

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