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January 18 2011

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Role of the Legal System During the Civil Rights Movement

posted by Christy

Almost everyone is aware of Martin Luther King Jr.'s impact on the civil rights movement, but how did the legal system play a role in the movement? While Martin Luther King Jr.'s infamous non-violent protest methods and civil disobedience helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and similar laws that gave basic civil rights including the right to vote, desegregation, and labor rights to African Americans, King also had many negative confrontations with the law. Below is a chronological list of Martin Luther King Jr.’s impact on and conflict with the American legal system.

King’s first brush with the law came in 1955, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott started after Claudette Colvin and then Rosa Parks refused to give up their seats to white bus riders. The boycott lasted for 385 days and resulted in the bombing of King’s house, his arrest, and ultimately finished when racial segregation ended on the Montgomery public buses after the ruling in Browder v. Gayle.  The authorities tried to find anyway to arrest King and ultimately used an old law that prohibited boycotts to detain King and other African American protestors.

In September of 1958, King was again arrested in Montgomery when he tried to enter a courtroom.  He was arrested for refusing to obey an officer and instead of paying the $14 fine, he decided to serve the 14 day prison sentence.  King did not have to serve the sentence however, as the police commissioner paid King's fine to avoid the publicity it would have given the civil rights movement.  

In May of 1960, during the sit-in protests, King became aware of his indictment for perjury on his Alabama state tax forms.  At the conclusion of a three-day trial, an all white jury returned a not guilty verdict in favor of King.

In October of that same year, King was arrested after he joined a sit-in at Rich's Department Store in Atlanta.  While King had been arrested before, this would be the first time he would spend a night in jail.  The other African Americans who were arrested were freed as part of a compromise.  King, on the other hand, was held in prison because he was in violation of the terms of his probation for a prior traffic ticket.   King was sentenced to four months in prison.  After legal efforts by his wife, King was released after eight days in jail.  

After an African American Birmingham church was bombed King mounted a civil rights campaign in the city and was arrested again in 1961.  King spent nine days in jail, where he authored his most famous work "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

Two major pieces of legislation came about as a result of Martin Luther King Jr.'s efforts during the civil rights movement.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed major forms of discrimination including racial segregation in public accommodations and inequality in voter registration applications.  One year later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices.  

While the role of the legal system during the civil rights movement seems to be a negative one, it was King's persistent fight against the laws that he believed were injustice, that lead to the success of the civil rights movement.  Law students and attorneys should take many lessons away from the civil rights movement, but most importantly, we should remember that we have a great opportunity and responsibility to fix the injustices in society.  

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. "I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law."
-- "Letter from Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963

The facts in this article were cross referenced with information provided by Spartacus Educational,, and Wikipedia.

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About the Author: Christy

Christy graduated from law school in May 2011 and is now working for the U.S. Navy as a JAG. She is practicing as a military prosecutor and will move to military defense in December 2012. She is currently stationed in Florida and enjoys traveling, playing soccer, and watching Dexter and Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia.


  1. Rachael Davis said on 1/13/13 at 4:34 PM

    I am creating a project on Martin Luther King and I would appreciate your permission to use the pictures you have on his website.

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