Hidden History: Decatur students shed light on 1960 MLK arrest, release

In this Oct. 25, 1960 AP file photo, Martin Luther King Jr. leaves court in Decatur after being given a four-month sentence related to a recent arrest at a sit-in. (AP Photo, File)

Credit: AP Photo, File

Credit: AP Photo, File

In this Oct. 25, 1960 AP file photo, Martin Luther King Jr. leaves court in Decatur after being given a four-month sentence related to a recent arrest at a sit-in. (AP Photo, File)

Today, a busy intersection in downtown Decatur is home to a bustling Chick-fil-A and a future mixed-use development project.

But 60 years ago, just steps from where a Confederate monument stood in Decatur Square, court proceedings that happened there involving Martin Luther King Jr. may have altered the course of the civil rights movement and American politics.

Amid national discussions revolving around race and history, a group of Decatur High School students is bringing new light to the story of King's arrest in DeKalb County, his sentencing in an old DeKalb courtroom and the intervention that led to his release.

“It was very eye-opening that the place I live in (had) a key role in the civil rights movement,” said Daxton Pettus, a rising senior at DHS and a member of the “Commemorating King” team.

The group recently sent an application to the Georgia Historical Society for a historical marker to be installed at the corner of W. Trinity Place and N. McDonough Street, the former site of a county building that sat just north of the high school.

Earlier this month, the city of Decatur commission formally backed the proposal, signing on as a sponsor along with the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, a local community activism organization.

Martin Luther King Jr. is escorted from the Atlanta jail  to a DeKalb County courthouse on Oct. 25, 1960. (AP Photo, File)

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Leaders behind the effort said the marker would bring attention to the largely unknown role Decatur played in the larger civil rights movement.

On Oct. 19, 1960, King was one of 79 people arrested following mass sit-in demonstrations to protest segregated eating places, according to news accounts. Everyone was released but King.

That’s because the civil rights leader was technically on probation in DeKalb County due to a minor traffic violation from months earlier. King was pulled over on Clifton Road on May 4, 1960, and charged with driving without a license, though he had a valid Alabama license. He pleaded guilty and paid a $25 fine, but DeKalb County Judge J. Oscar Mitchell still gave him a year of probation.

After King’s protest-related arrest, Mitchell ruled he had violated his probation. The judge sentenced King to four months of hard labor in a “Georgia public works camp,” an Associated Press story from the time stated.

The story of one of the country’s top civil rights leaders being sentenced to a “chain gang” attracted national attention. The day after King was sentenced, as he was taken from his cell in DeKalb to Reidsville State Prison, John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert intervened. Appealing to Mitchell, they argued that bail cannot be denied for someone facing a misdemeanor sentence. King was then released on bond, just days before the 1960 presidential election.

Historians believe JFK’s support of King, and his intervention following his DeKalb court appearance, led many southern Black residents to vote for Kennedy in his bid to defeat Richard Nixon in the presidential election.

DHS students Daxton Pettus (left) and Genesis Reddicks (right) with Charles Black and Roslyn Pope, who they spoke with for their project about MLK's arrest and court appearance in Decatur in 1960.

Credit: Courtesy/Daxton Pettus

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Credit: Courtesy/Daxton Pettus

Several members of the black student union at DHS, led by teachers and community advisers, began researching King’s DeKalb court appearance, interviewing local activists and others who remember the incident. The students spoke about the significance of the event with former Decatur Mayor Elizabeth Wilson and DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger, who later unseated Mitchell on the bench.

The group also held an assembly to educate the DHS student body about the event.

Katrina Walker, a DHS teacher who helped the students, said the incident shows “how something seemingly small could be so pivotal at a national level.”

If the marker is approved by the Georgia Historical Society in October, it would be erected next year. The location is just steps from where other pieces of local history are commemorated; a monument to the Confederacy that used to stand in Decatur Square was recently removed, after the county installed a marker explaining its true context. Earlier this year, the local branch of the NAACP spearheaded the installment of a historical marker recognizing the lynchings of Black men that happened in DeKalb.

“It matters what’s memorialized,” Walker said. “It tells you who you are, what you value and what you expect of yourself.”

The students behind the “Commemorating King” team are confident the marker will get approved. Now more than ever — as nationwide protests spark new conversations about race — the marker is needed, said Genesis Reddicks, a rising senior at DHS and member of the Commemorating King team, adding that many do not know about Decatur’s role in the civil rights movement.

“I think it’s important that we brought light to that,” Reddicks said.

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