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Session #484: The Supreme Court Case behind King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Howard Kaplan & Mabel McKinney-Browning, American Bar Association Division.

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Presentation on theme: "Session #484: The Supreme Court Case behind King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Howard Kaplan & Mabel McKinney-Browning, American Bar Association Division."— Presentation transcript:

1 Session #484: The Supreme Court Case behind King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Howard Kaplan & Mabel McKinney-Browning, American Bar Association Division for Public Education


3 Walker v. Birmingham (1967) provides powerful lens to: review the seminal events of Birmingham in April/May1963 analyze a historic Supreme Court opinion as an exemplary text blending narrative, information, and persuasive argument consider the relationship between civil disobedience and the rule of law

4 Timeline of events Martin Luther King, Jr. with Wyatt Tee Walker

5 Timeline of events December 1962 Planning begins for Project C, a non-violent direct action campaign of “Confrontation” against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is the chief strategist, assigned by MLK. April 2, 1963 MLK arrives in Birmingham. Project C leaders twice request parade permits for public demonstrations from Commissioner of Public Safety “Bull” Connor. Both are summarily rejected. April 3, 1963 Project C launched with first demonstrations, sit-ins at downtown Birmingham lunch counters. Demonstrators are arrested. April 10, 1963 Birmingham official petition state court ex parte for injunction enjoining MLK and 130 other civil rights activists from defying parade permit ordinance, subject to contempt of court. Alabama Jefferson County Circuit Judge William A. Jenkins Jr. grants the temporary injunction at 9:00 pm.

6 Timeline of events April 11, 1963 MLK and others named in injunction first notified at 1:00 am. MLK, Birmingham civil rights leader Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (president of the SCLC-affiliated Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and others hold press conference and issue associated statement regarding the injunction. April 12, 1963 MLK and Reverend Ralph Abernathy lead Good Friday march from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church heading for City Hall, but are arrested after 4 blocks, charged with violating the Birmingham parade permit ordinance. April 14, 1963 Project C demonstrators march on Easter Sunday. Birmingham police make further arrests. April 15, 1963 Attorneys for Project C seek to dissolve the injunction against demonstrations in court. MLK and other ministers indicted for contempt of court for violating the injunction.

7 Timeline of events April 18, 1963 Writing by hand in the margins of an April 12 copy of the Birmingham News, MLK completes draft of what will become known as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” First published in full in June 1963, the “Letter” becomes MLK’s defining essay on direct action, just law, and civil disobedience. April 20, 1963 MLK released from jail with bond funds raised by Harry Belafonte. April 22, 1963 Contempt trial of MLK, Walker and others begins, concluding on April 26 with convictions and sentences of 5 days in jail (stayed pending appeal). December 9, 1965 Walker, MLK and others file appeal of conviction for violating the April 10, 1963 Birmingham injunction and April 26, 1963 conviction. The Alabama Supreme Court rules on the case, upholding the contempt convictions.

8 Timeline of events March 13-14, 1967 After granting certiorari, the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Walker v. Birmingham. At issue is whether the April 10 ex parte temporary injunction issued by Judge Jenkins violated the First Amendment rights of Walker and the other petitioners. June 12, 1967 U.S. Supreme Court rules 5-4 in favor of Birmingham, holding that the court-ordered injunction was valid and that the petitioners had disobeyed it before first challenging it through the judicial process (breaking the “collateral bar rule”). The ruling upheld the contempt convictions of MLK and Walker. October 30, 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker return to Birmingham from Atlanta to serve their jail sentences for contempt of court for defying the injunction.

9 small group discussion 1. Identify the source of excerpt—who, what, when, why? 2. Read assigned texts and consider discussion questions 3. Compare the two assigned texts 4. Select a facilitator and discuss as a group 5. Assign a reporter to share conclusions

10 Text 1   …officials of Birmingham, Alabama, filed a bill of complaint in a state circuit court asking for injunctive relief against 139 individuals and two organizations.   one of the petitioners announced that “injunction or no injunction we are going to march tomorrow.” Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion in Walker v. Birmingham: Narrative Facts of the Case (excerpt)

11 Text 2  …issued statements that they would refuse to comply with what they believed to be, and is indeed, a blatantly unconstitutional restraining order.”   Approximately 50 persons marched, led by three petitioners, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and Shuttlesworth.” Justice William Brennan’s dissent in Walker v. Birmingham: Narrative Facts of the Case (excerpt)

12 Text 3   …quite a different constitutional posture if the petitioners, before disobeying the injunction, had challenged it in the Alabama courts…”   …in the fair administration of justice no man can be judge in his own case…”   ….respect for judicial process is a small price to pay for the civilizing hand of law.” Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion in Walker v. Birmingham: Legal Argument (excerpt)

13 Text 4 Dissents in Walker v. Birmingham Chief Justice Earl Warren  This injunction was such potent magic that it transformed the command of an unconstitutional statute into an impregnable barrier …” Justice William Brennan  Convictions for contempt of court orders which invalidly abridge First Amendment freedoms must be condemned equally with convictions for violation of statutes which do the same thing.”

14 Text 5  This is raw tyranny under the guise of maintaining law and order. We cannot in all good conscience obey such an injunction which is an unjust, undemocratic and unconstitutional misuse of the legal process.” Ministers’ Statement to press, April 11, 1963

15 Text 6   I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” Martin Luther King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 1963 (excerpt)

16 Thank you for joining us!

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