Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

May 4, 1963

Guest post by Aaron Nostwich, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.

On May 4, 1963, the Baltimore Afro-American told of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sentencing to five days in jail, along with ten others, in the courthouse of Birmingham, Alabama. The judge issued the sentence despite there being “not a shred of evidence” to their wrongdoing, according to Constance Baker Motley of the NAACP. The charges were issued after the state of Alabama instated a new law banning people from protesting against racial discrimination and segregation, though a spokesperson from the NAACP stated the charges would be appealed to the Supreme Court, if the need arose. The Reverend King and the ten others were sentenced with criminal contempt, rather than civil contempt; had they been convicted of civil contempt, they would remain in jail until they promised not to protest segregation in Birmingham further (click to view PDF).

The history of the civil rights movement in the 1960s often speaks of the Reverend King and his peaceful methods for ending segregation. Birmingham also comes up quite a bit in that same history, for it became one of many metaphorical battlegrounds between segregation and integration. In the spring of 1963, peaceful sit-ins began as a part of the Birmingham Campaign, a movement centered on the Alabama city to protest the recent segregation laws. These peaceful protests by activists were met with heavy opposition and, in some cases, severe brutality. Firehoses sent massive amounts of water into the crowd, not bothering to discriminate between man and woman; even children among the crowd received blasts from the hoses. Police dogs were also utilized in an attempt to keep order and were turned loose upon the protestors, resulting in many injuries. Despite all this violence against them, Martin Luther King Jr. maintained his desire for peaceful protest certain it would be the key to the end of segregation.

What impressed me about this article came in the eleven points of a statement the Reverend King and the ten ministers issued to the judge, outlining their intentions in the city. Refused by the state jurist to be considered evidence, the statement declared the protests would not stop; rather, the protests would be encouraged to continue, and the people would be encouraged to participate in peaceful demonstrations against segregation. Martin Luther King Jr. and the ministers also promised their endeavors within Birmingham would remain peaceful and to attend church, albeit in a nonsegregated fashion. The judge found this list to be evidence that the ministers had not purged themselves of their contempt charges, and so the trial began.

On May 4, 1963, a judge in Birmingham, Alabama, sentence Martin Luther King Jr. and ten ministers to spend five days in jail for breaking the state law against protesting segregation. The events of this day, as well as many others throughout the spring of 1963, record the struggles of the African-American population for equal rights. Later in that same month, the city began work to desegregate, removing white- and black-only signs and desegregating many businesses. While just one city in a country torn by racial issues, Birmingham had embarked on a journey to become a place for all races.

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