Dr. King Was Only One of Many Martyrs

by Jo Freeman

It was the acquittals that prompted Dr. King to announce that the next great campaign would protest the double standard of justice. Deep South juries were composed of white men. Women were barred by statute in Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. Virtually all blacks were excluded in practice. Although a jury of one’s peers is lauded as the best way to achieve justice, these trials made it clear that peers that were too close to defendants did not always do justice. 

MLK's funeral

Dr King's Memorial, near the Lincoln Memorial on DC's Mall.

In October of 1965, the Southern Regional Council and the American Civil Liberties Union released a 3- page report entitled "Southern Justice: An Indictment." Anecdotal in nature, it gave numerous examples of how "justice" was dispensed for blacks differently than for whites. 

The double standard of justice was not confined to civil rights activists, it said, but was something blacks experienced "from birth to death." Blacks were likely to be convicted of crimes against whites which were excused when committed by whites against blacks. Just finding a lawyer was difficult, as representing blacks could "cost an attorney his law practice and result even in ostracism by his community." Judges were hostile, juries were stacked, sentences were harsh, and virtually all of the personnel in the criminal justice system, from the judges to the clerks, from the sheriff to the deputies, were white.

SCLC thought another "Selma" was necessary to make the country pay attention to this issue. It chose Butler County and Greene County in Alabama as the places to start. By December SCLC had realized that, despite a lot of marching, these counties weren’t mobilizing. They had not experienced the years of careful fieldwork that lay behind the successful actions in Birmingham and Selma. The next "Selma" would have to wait another day.

While the effort did not catch the attention of the press and the nation, it did catch that of President Johnson. In his 1966 state of the union address on January 12, he called for

.... additional steps to insure equal justice to all of our people by effectively enforcing nondiscrimination in Federal and State jury selection, by making it a serious Federal crime to obstruct public and private efforts to secure civil rights, ...

Absent the pressure of mass public opinion, nothing passed until 1968. The jury bill which finally passed that Spring only applied to federal juries, not state. But Congress listened. It just took a while.

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Copyright © 2011 by Jo Freeman