Fifty years ago, it was unthinkable the General Assembly of Georgia and its governor would approve such an honor for the civil rights leader. Indeed, this ranks up there with the election of Barack Obama as president in terms of how unlikely either of the events would have been predicted half-century ago.
In signing the bill, Deal said “Dr. King is a point of pride for our state, and he deserves to hold a place of honor on our Capitol grounds.” To make room for the King statue and graphically showing the distance Georgia has come from its past, last fall Deal signed an executive order moving another statue across the street. It was the statue of the fiery white supremacist and anti-Semite Tom Watson (1856-1922), state legislator, congressman and U.S. senator.
The King statue legislation came out of a Republican-controlled legislature and was signed by a Republican governor, an ironic twist from what happened in 1960. On Oct. 19, King was among 52 persons arrested for sitting in at a Rich’s department store lunch counter in Atlanta during the student sit-in movement to desegregate public accommodations across the South.
All of those arrested — except King — were released and the charges were dropped. The problem was he had been arrested in September in DeKalb County on charges of an invalid driver’s license and improper registration. He pleaded guilty to the invalid license charge, paid a $25 fine and was given a 12-month suspended jail sentence.
After his lunch counter sit-in arrest, he was taken before Judge Oscar Mitchell of the DeKalb civil and criminal court and found guilty of violating probation in the traffic case. The judge handed down a stunning sentence — four months in prison. At 4 a.m. the next day, King was spirited away to the state penitentiary at Reidsville.
Politics at the highest level came into play. President Dwight Eisenhower, who would finish his term in a few months, was told of King’s imprisonment. A statement was drafted calling the action unjust and saying the attorney general would take steps to help free King. It was never issued.
The Republican nominee for president, Vice President Richard F. Nixon, said he had no comment. But the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kennedy, telephoned King’s wife Coretta and expressed his sympathy. His brother, Robert, telephoned the judge, who suddenly had a change of heart and allowed King to go free on $2,000 bond.
King declined to endorse either candidate. But his father, a lifelong Republican, announced he was switching to Kennedy — who won a narrow victory, and there was speculation the Kennedys’ efforts on behalf of King made the difference.
And what a difference 54 years makes.