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The Arrest and Release of Dr King at Reidsville

Page history last edited by Joseph Kimsey 7 years, 10 months ago



On October 19th, 1960 demonstrators, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and local college students, performed a sit-in at Rich's Department Store. Dr. King and the students were arrested for trespassing and sent to the Fulton County Jail.

The students were released, but Dr. King was kept in jail, eventually being sent to DeKalb county jail and then Reidsville state prison. Thanks to John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, King was released on October 28th.


Thick Description

     Following the sit-in at Rich's department store on October 19th, 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and 51 demonstrators were arrested for violating the state's anti-trespass law. 5 days later on the 24th Mayor Hartsfield was able to secure the release of all of the demonstrators with the exception of one, Dr. King. The Fulton County authorities, under the control of Judge Oscar Mitchell, held Dr. King in the Fulton County Jail so that he could be kept under lock and key until his hearing to see whether or not he had violated the terms of his suspended sentence. Dr. King had received his one-year suspended sentence and a $25 fine for driving without a proper permit.  Dr. King would be transferred from the Fulton County Jail to the DeKalb county jail the very next day. He then went to his hearing with Judge Oscar Mitchell. Despite the best efforts of Dr. King's lawyer, Donald Holloway, Dr. King's probation was revoked and he was sentenced to four months of hard labor with a road state gang. While Dr. King slept that night he was awoken and then moved once again, but this time he was not moving to a different jail. Dr. King was sent to the maximum security prison in Reidsville. 

     The same day, Dr. King would write a letter to his wife, Coretta, explaining his current situation. He was now in Reidsville. He asks her to stay strong in her faith, for that would, in turn, strengthen him. He expressed his desire to see her and the kids, and explained that they could come and visit him this Sunday. He also asked his wife if she could bring him a number of items to make his stay in Reidsville a bit more bearable. Dr. King asked for a few theological books, a Bible, a dictionary, a thesaurus, a biography of Gandhi, and a radio. He also asked her to bring him a number of his sermons. Dr. King knew that it would be difficult to endure the ordeal of being incarcerated in Reidsville, but he believed that the “excessive suffering” that he and his family were undertaking would “in some little way serve to make Atlanta a better city, Georgia a better state, and America a better country.” He states that if what he believes is true then their suffering would not be in vain.

     While Mayor Hartsfield received letters protesting the injustice and asking him to correct it, Judge Oscar Mitchell was receiving letters of commendation. This all occurred near the end of the 1960 presidential election and received notice from both presidential candidates, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. As it was an extremely close race, both candidates were looking for anything that could give them an advantage over their opponents. When the polarizing issue of Dr. King's arrest and incarceration in Reidsville occurred, both candidates knew that their involvement could make or break the race. On one hand, attempting to get Dr. King released from prison would put the candidate in the good graces of a large amount of black voters and those sympathetic to Dr. King's plight and the Civil Rights Movement in general, but it would also result in the loss of support from white voters. On the other hand, it was possible that the support garnered from not getting involved in the controversy with Dr. King’s imprisonment would be enough to offset the loss of support from black voters. Both presidential campaign teams discussed the pros and cons of the each decision. Eventually President Nixon decided to make no public statement on Dr. King’s arrest (although John Calhoun, the director of the Nixon campaign in Atlanta’s African American community, warned Republican Party officials that Nixon should make a statement of support). John F. Kennedy and his team decided to choose a slightly more private method of support than a public statement and had the presidential candidate call Mrs. King. Kennedy gave Coretta King his condolences and told her that if there was anything that he could to help, “please feel free to call [him].” JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, took it one step further. Upset by the injustice of Dr. King’s imprisonment, Robert made a different phone call, not to Mrs. King, but Judge Oscar Mitchell himself. Robert Kennedy’s call proved effective because the 28th of October, the very next day, Judge Mitchell released Dr. King on a $2,000 bond. Following his release, Dr. King was taken back to Atlanta on a private plane rented by Donald L. Hollowell and was greeted by his friends and family. He was then taken to Ebenezer Baptist Church to celebrate his release.

Interesting Facts

  • One of the individuals to send a letter to Mayor Hartsfield was actually Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first-lady.
  • Robert Kennedy made a statement later on that he had told Judge Mitchell in his call with him that if he were a decent American, he would let King out by sundown.
  •  Reidsville State Prison is located about 230 miles from Atlanta.



Library of Congress,  24 January 2013 , Rich's Department Store (Public Domain)

R1B3L, 13 July 2007, Georgia State Prison (Public Domain)














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