New book by Dan Abrams on the trial of Martin Luther King Jr

Book Alabama vs. King

The upcoming new book Alabama vs. King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Criminal Case That Launched the Civil Rights Movement takes a look at the ‘forgotten’ criminal trial of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the wake of Pink Parks‘ Refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Law&Crime Founder Dan Abrams is co-author of the book on the historical case with FredGray, attorney for both Parks and Dr. King.

The HarperCollins book, set to hit shelves May 24, provides relevant context in preparing for the protest, both about Parks and the broader and burgeoning civil rights movement. A book excerpt recounts important events in this way:

At around 9:15 p.m. on January 30, 1956, 27-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. advocated nonviolent protest in front of approximately two thousand people at the cavernous First Baptist Church. dr King told the delighted audience, “If only I have to go to jail a few times and get like 20 threatening phone calls a day. . . I think that’s a very small price to pay for what we’re fighting for.” Little did he know that price was rising significantly as he spoke.

A white supremacist had driven to his home that night, walked halfway up the stairs of his white clapboard home in a quiet neighborhood, and thrown a sharp stick of dynamite onto the front porch. His wife Coretta Scott King and a friend had been in the living room and their newborn daughter Yolanda had slept in a back room. When the dynamite exploded moments later, windows were blown out and parts of the house were destroyed or reduced to rubble.

Upon hearing of the incident, King immediately rushed home and was relieved to find his wife, her boyfriend and daughter unharmed. An angry and frightened crowd of about three hundred people quickly rallied to support the King family, and with the residual smell of explosives still wafting through the night air, Dr. King onto his partially standing porch and declared, “We believe in the law and we order. Don’t get your guns. . . We do not advocate violence. We want to love our enemies.” With these words, a potentially explosive situation was resolved.

Local authorities never arrested the perpetrator of the crime, but less than two months later, they arrested Dr. King for organizing the peaceful protests he campaigned for the night his home was bombed. The ensuing process was intended to introduce the young minister to America.

It had taken an extraordinary, unexpected, and fortuitous chain of events for the young Dr. to put King in the spotlight of history. It wasn’t a role he had pursued. “When Martin Luther King came to Montgomery in 1953,” recalls Fred Gray, his friend and first defense attorney, “he had no civil rights in mind. In fact, the preacher before him had been chased out of town for being too liberal.”

But after civil rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for violating a city statute by refusing to give up her seat on a crowded bus for a white person, a small group of Montgomery’s leading black citizens had and ministers demanded an agreement. Day bus boycott to protest the way black Americans were treated on public transport. The protest was scheduled for December 5, the day of Parks’ trial. “It’s been a long time coming,” Fred Gray explained. “It wasn’t just an isolated incident. We have long complained about the way black people are treated on the buses. But the bus company hadn’t done anything about it. We would have settled for minor changes; Instead they just ignored us. They treated us like we had no rights. When Mrs. Parks was arrested, the community just said, that’s it. We’re about to do something about it. They will show us respect or we will stop riding their buses.”

At her 30-minute trial on December 5, Rosa Parks pled not guilty to charges of disorderly conduct and violating a local law. Fred Gray defended her. She was convicted and fined $10 plus $4 in court costs. Gray immediately appealed the conviction. But by that time the protest had already begun.

Parks’ arrest and conviction inspired the “Montgomery Bus Boycott” and a speech given by Dr. King held, which animated anti-segregation protests in the Deep South.

“Mrs. Rosa Parks is a fine person. And since it had to happen, I’m glad it happened to a person like Mrs. Parks, because no one can doubt the limitless reach of her integrity. No one can doubt the greatness of her character , no one can doubt the depth of their Christian commitment and devotion to the teachings of Jesus,” he said in the speech. “And I’m glad it had to happen, it happened to a person that no one in the community would describe as a disruptive factor Mrs. Parks is a fine Christian, humble, yet she has integrity and character. And just because she refused to stand up, she was arrested.”

“And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people are tired of being trampled on by the iron feet of oppression,” he added.

dr King, then a 27-year-old minister, would soon find himself in legal trouble as prosecutors accused him of being the leader of the bus boycott in violation of an anti-boycott law.

As King’s first attorney Fred Gray recalls, it was at this moment in history that Dr. King pulled out of relative anonymity and put him on the path to becoming a civil rights icon.

“It’s certainly true to say that none of the people who picked him thought of him as someone who would lead black people across the country. We just looked at the situation on the buses in Montgomery. It wasn’t until later that we realized that this kind of random selection had made all the difference in the world,” Gray said.

Mug shot of Fred Grey

Mugshot by Fred Gray, Montgomery County Archives

Gray was 25 at the time and described having “legal problems almost every day,” with Dr. King was “in the midst of each of them”.

Then came the trial of Dr. King and finally the conviction.

89 were arrested, but Dr. King was charged with leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And yet Gray had no qualms about King testifying in court in his own defense. He described a client who would accept legal advice, who was knowledgeable of the law, who was wary of the pitfalls of the prosecution, and who had the ability to be authentic and confident on the state.

“During the trial we discussed legal strategy and he gave his opinion, but in general he accepted advice. Our primary goal was that regardless of the outcome of the case, Martin Luther King would emerge victorious. He had never testified in a trial before, but I had great faith in him,” Gray said. “We had prepared him well both for his direct testimony and for his cross-examination: Dr. King understood what the law was, what the facts were, what our theory of the case was, and what the prosecution would try. Their goal was to prove that he was the leader, the man making decisions, and not the spokesman for everyone else.”

“He was aware of the legal traps that Mr Thetford would throw at him and knew how to avoid them. He sat quietly through all the testimonies and listened intently. After each day we all gathered in my office to discuss the day’s schedule and plan for the next day. And although we never told him how to answer or what to say, we never rehearsed. But dr King understood that sometimes there was a difference between law and justice, and he had spent his entire life believing in justice for our community,” he added. “He was firm on that and that made him completely confident. He wasn’t the least bit nervous as he took position. He knew what they would try to tell him and he knew what we wanted him to say. I suspect a lot of the people in that courtroom were a lot more nervous about him than he felt.”

In addition to Gray’s insights and first-hand accounts, the book draws on primary sources such as: B. Transcripts of Dr. King’s trial testimony plus testimony of black witnesses to take readers back to the 1950s in 2022 in Montgomery, Alabama.

Joining Abrams and Gray as a co-author is David Fisher. Abrams and Fisher also co-authored several other books, New York Times Bestsellers among them, on John Adams, AbrahamLincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and jack ruby.

[Image via HarperCollins]

Do you have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Leave a Comment