Years before he would give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for participating in a lunch counter sit-in in Atlanta. He was sentenced to four months of hard labor for an outstanding traffic violation. This was just days before Election Day in October 1960.
The Kennedy campaign eventually got him released from prison. And this is how the imprisonment influenced the presidential race, changing how Blacks vote in the South and getting John F. Kennedy into the White House.
On May 4, 1960, writer Lillian Smith visited King and his wife, Coretta, for dinner. King decided to drive her back to Emory University for her cancer treatments when they were stopped in DeKalb County, outside Atlanta. Smith believed that they were pulled over because the officer had seen her white face being driven by a Black man.
But King was probably followed as he had been under surveillance thanks to his activism. According to the Associated Press, King paid a $25 fine in September of that year to settle the false charge of driving without a license. He, however, said that “he wasn’t aware that he was put on probation, threatening prison if he broke any laws.”
Days later, just weeks before election day, King was charged with trespassing in a whites-only restaurant at Rich’s department store after joining the Atlanta Student Movement’s lunch counter sit-in at the store. Everyone involved was arrested but later released. King wasn’t. On October 25, 1960, in a crowded courtroom in Decatur, Judge J. Oscar Mitchell sentenced King to four months.
“He [King] had had a previous traffic violation, suspended sentence from DeKalb County. And that judge, Judge Oscar Mitchell, was able to get him back into his Decatur courtroom and sentence him to four months hard labor,” author Paul Kendrick recently explained on Georgia Today.
“Martin later told me that the terrors of southern justice, wherein scores of black men were plucked from their cells and never seen again, ran through his mind,” Coretta Scott King also recalled in her autobiography.
It was just a few days before the presidential election. Black people who had mostly voted Republican were behind Richard M. Nixon. King’s father Martin Luther King Sr., the leader of Ebenezer Baptist Church, had also thrown his weight behind Nixon. But Nixon ignored the King family when they asked him to help get King released. Meanwhile, Kennedy had shown concern, even calling Coretta to say he was sorry for what had happened.
He even went further to get King freed. The Associated Press said Kennedy’s brother Robert F. Kennedy called Mitchell, who reversed his denial of bond, and that got King out.
“I owe a great debt of gratitude to Sen. Kennedy and his family for this. I don’t know the details of it, but naturally, I’m very happy to know of Sen. Kennedy’s concern,” King said at the time.
The AP reported that “King’s father switched his endorsement, saying Kennedy had “the moral courage to stand up for what’s right.” That quote, and others, appeared in a blue-papered pamphlet titled “No Comment Nixon Versus a Candidate with a Heart, Senator Kennedy.” Unnoticed by the national media, Kennedy aides and King supporters distributed the pamphlet in black churches around the nation the Sunday before Election Day.”
Blacks voted 70-30 for the Democrat, helping Kennedy win the election by a narrow 113,000 margin nationwide and changing American politics forever.