I wanted to write something as a tribute appropriate for this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but I was searching around for a something that inspired me, and I was coming up empty. But then, a note in my inbox pointed me to a blog post from Kelly Erb at the Taxgirl blog. Kelly put down thoughts better than I ever could so I’m going to excerpt her post here. I do encourage everyone to read the full post.
Later, I was preparing to write post about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I figured I’d just put up a copy of his famous “I Have A Dream” speech and call it a day. But as I researched, I found part of his autobiography which, I will confess, I have never read in full. And I saw something interesting: I knew that Dr. King had been arrested several times for various accusations, but I didn’t realize that he had been on trial for tax evasion.
Yep. On February 17, 1960, a warrant was issued for the arrest of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on charges of tax evasion. He was accused of allegedly falsifying his Alabama income tax returns for the years 1956 and 1958; he was the only person ever prosecuted under the state’s income tax perjury statute. It seemed like an inevitable victory for the government.
In his autobiography, Dr. King described the trial like this:
This case was tried before an all-white Southern jury. All of the State’s witnesses were white. The judge and the prosecutor were white. The courtroom was segregated. Passions were inflamed. Feelings ran high. The press and other communications media were hostile. 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. These men were our lawyers-Negro lawyers from the North: William Ming of Chicago and Hubert Delaney from New York.
And something quite remarkable happened. On May 28, 1960, only after a few hours, Dr. King was acquitted by an all white jury in Montgomery, Alabama.
Dr. King said about his trial:
I am frank to confess that on this occasion I learned that truth and conviction in the hands of a skillful advocate could make what started out as a bigoted, prejudiced jury, choose the path of justice. I cannot help but wish in my heart that the same kind of skill and devotion which Bill Ming and Hubert Delaney accorded to me could be available to thousands of civil rights workers, to thousands of ordinary Negroes, who are every day facing prejudiced courtrooms.
And it dawned on me: no matter how many slick-haired, silver-tongued attorneys do their best to make a quick buck at the expense of the reputation of the profession, you can’t dispute that justice is attainable. And justice is good. And justice is important. And even if it is infrequent, it’s worth it when it happens.
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