Litigation in the Civil Rights Movement – MLK & the Right to Know
Throughout history, advocates both within and outside of the legal field have used the court system to promote justice and champion the public’s right to know, understand, and access the laws that bind them. The conventional wisdom points to the seminal civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education as the ultimate instance of the U.S. Judiciary sanctioning positive change in society by changing the law. But beyond Brown, there are numerous instances of justice advocates leveraging the court system to incite change.
Through his national movement to secure civil rights for every American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. epitomized the artful use of the American court system to further his mission. Dr. King did this by working with the system, not against it, inviting courts to tread the delicate line between ensuring public safety while interpreting the law in a way that increases access to basic rights for every citizen. Specifically, Dr. King’s movement leveraged litigation and effective lawyering to keep the civil rights movement alive, from striking down attempts to incarcerate Dr. King, to fighting TROs and other measures to quell peaceful protests, to striking down segregationist policies.
As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day and commemorate his contribution to securing civil rights, we would like to highlight some of the ways that he and his followers used the American court system to advance First Amendment rights. We will also discuss the ways that Dr. King’s legacy lives on in the modern Right to Know movement, and how advocates of open access to the law are using Dr. King’s very same tactics to keep our government accountable to the people and subject to public scrutiny.
Leveraging the Legal System to Advance the Civil Rights Movement
While many change agents are known for being disruptors – for working against the government and acting illegally to promote change – Dr. King’s legacy was different. He was known for affirmatively using the American legal system to advance his movement to expand civil rights.
Dr. King’s last instance of using the law to advance change occurred right before his assassination: In the aftermath of a Memphis protest that had gone terribly awry, quickly devolving into violence and disruption, attorneys for the City of Memphis attempted to prevent a second march by Dr. King and his supporters. In the interest of preserving peace in the City, the Memphis attorneys formally petitioned the U.S. District Court for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to foreclose the second march.
But Dr. King’s lawyers were more persuasive, effectively assuaging the District Court Judge’s concerns that the second march would result in similar disorder. They built an argument and case that was based in the inviolable First Amendment right to free speech and free expression as a path toward preserving the integrity of our democratic system. In particular, King’s counsel leveraged the testimony of civil rights leader and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, who famously cited what he dubbed the “pressure cooker” effect: When citizens are denied a channel to productively vent their grievances, they will eventually erupt into discord. Young testified that “[t]he nonviolent movement has traditionally used marches as a healthy escape. If there is no channel . . . then it is . . . like a pressure cooker. It explodes somewhere.” In other words, the right to protest is essential to preserving peace and order.
This convinced District Judge Bailey Brown, who signed an order permitting the second march – an event that occurred just days after Dr. King’s tragic death. Led by Coretta Scott King, the march was peaceful, complying with the Court’s order and befittingly consistent with Dr. King’s spirit of nonviolent, productive, peaceful protest.
What Dr. King’s legal team did in Memphis was wise and artful. They invited the Court to balance two competing interests: the advancement of civil rights, and the preservation of public safety. This was just one of many instances in which Dr. King used the fabric of the American legal system to promote his cause. Rather than rupture that fabric, he used it to secure basic rights and protections.
The Alabama Perjury Trial
In 1960, the State of Alabama tried Dr. King for perjury, claiming he under-reported his income on his state income tax returns. After a compelling argument by Dr. King’s legal team, an all-white southern jury acquitted him, saving him from a lengthy prison sentence that would have forestalled his continued fight for civil rights.
The Georgia Incarceration
Dr. King relocated to Atlanta from Montgomery in early 1960. A Georgia police officer stopped him on his journey and ticketed him for not having expeditiously secured a Georgia license. Dr. King was fined under Georgia law and given a suspended sentence, with a year’s probation.
When Dr. King was arrested during an Atlanta demonstration, a local judge revoked his probation and sent him to a maximum-security state prison. However, King’s lawyers argued fiercely for his release, effectively persuading the Georgia appellate court that the trial judge lacked the authority to sentence Dr. King.
The Chicago Freedom Movement
In 1965, Dr. King launched the Chicago Freedom Movement, a coalition that focused on integrating the City and challenging landlords of low-income housing units to raise the bar on the deplorable housing options for the City’s impoverished. The Movement culminated in a Summit Agreement to address and correct pervasive issues of discrimination and segregation in Chicago urban neighborhoods.
Why Dr. King’s Movement Was Effective
Dr. King’s civil rights movement exemplified the spirit of productive but nonviolent protest. King himself, his supporters, his followers, and his legal team all maintained an eye on the court system, as they knew that winning in court would ultimately foster real change, as it had with Brown. They always tread carefully, knowing that the courts were charged with their own mission: balancing the constitutional right to free speech and free expression with an interest in public safety. Effective litigation strategy requires a deep understanding of the courts’ competing interests and the delicate balance between them, and Dr. King’s lawyers gained an upper hand through their shrewdness and skill.
Continuing Dr. King’s Legacy: Protecting the Right to Know and Access to Justice
The civil rights and the modern Right to Know movements have the same intention: ensuring that the public can make use of the law in an equitable way, without any preconditions. As with the civil rights movement, the Right to Know movement secures several important protections for U.S. citizens:
- It encourages increased openness and accessibility of public laws and records, from open law libraries to case law and other court records databases, so that citizens can educate themselves on the laws that bind them.
- It creates a more educated populace. Those who understand the law not only uphold it, but also see its deficiencies and can act as change agents for good.
- It keeps the general public, its leaders, and lawmakers accountable to the people they serve, promoting increased integrity, honesty, and transparency for everyone: particularly those who make, interpret, and enforce the laws.
- By educating the populace and keeping leaders accountable, it creates a bulwark against corruption, fraud, anarchy and discord.
Perhaps most importantly, the Right to Know movement aims to provide all citizens, everywhere, with increased access to information and, ultimately, to justice. Just as Dr. King did five decades ago, today’s proponents of the Right to Know are equipping citizens with basic rights that will help them prosper.
At the end of the day, what UniCourt and many other legal tech companies are doing is helping attorneys and lay people alike access and understand the law in an affordable, more meaningful way. Like Dr. King did decades ago, pioneers in legal tech are using the protections inherent in our court system to secure the public’s basic civil rights – whether it is the right to equality, equal opportunity employment, freedom of speech and expression, or access to justice.
As we remember the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is important to remember that there are countless civil rights lawyers throughout history who have used the power of the American court system to protect civil liberties. But their work is not done. We will continue to need new lawyers and leaders in the movements to expand civil rights, protect the Right to Know, meaningfully interact with the legal system, and, ultimately, carry Dr. King’s legacy into the next century.
Today, we are grateful for the work of Dr. King and other fierce advocates for civil rights, from those who have come before to those who are currently fighting to protect and defend the American dream.