Jefferson County to preserve downtown jail where Martin Luther King Jr. was held

Jefferson County to preserve downtown jail where Martin Luther King Jr. was held
Sheriff Mark Pettway points to historic material surrounding the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s incarceration in Jefferson County in 1967. (contributed)

An forgotten jail on the seventh floor of the Jefferson County Courthouse, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. served time for civil disobedience, is being preserved and may be opened to the public as a historic landmark, Jefferson County commissioners said.

The commission unanimously passed a resolution that preserves the jail area on the seventh floor “in recognition of the contributions to society by Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the place that Jefferson County holds in the history of the civil rights movement.”

History often notes King’s 1963 Birmingham incarceration when he wrote his masterpiece “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” However, not much attention is given to King’s two-day stay in the Jefferson County Courthouse, where he spent time after being charged in 1963 with parading without a permit and was sentenced to five days. It took until 1967 to exhaust all of his appeals.

A jail cell on the seventh floor of the downtown Jefferson County Courthouse. (contributed)

Sheriff Mark Pettway said the public needs to know more about King’s stay in the Jefferson County Courthouse jail.

In October 1967, King was arrested after getting off a plane at the airport. He spent time in jails in Bessemer and downtown Birmingham.

“We have an opportunity to tell the full story about someone who came to Jefferson County to change the lives of all those who lived here,” said Pettway, standing in the seventh floor courthouse jail. “We know about Dr. Martin Luther King being housed in the Bessemer facility of Jefferson County. Also, he was housed here in this building.

“We want to make sure that that hidden treasure that is here in this building … is memorialized to make sure that the full story does not end in Bessemer but continues here in this part of Jefferson County.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld King’s 1963 conviction, the civil rights leader knew that if he entered Alabama again he could be arrested, so he announced in his hometown of Atlanta that he would return to Birmingham and surrender. It would be the last of 29 times he was arrested on misdemeanor charges for his civil rights activism.

David Orange, a former Jefferson County Commission president and assistant sheriff, arrested King and four others at the Birmingham airport as they exited the plane. King was first taken to Bessemer because law enforcement officials said they feared there might be an assassin in the crowd at the Birmingham courthouse. King was assassinated about six months later, on April 4, 1968, in Memphis.

King and his brother, the Rev. A.D. King, were booked into the jail in Bessemer on Oct. 30, 1967. The next day, Orange took King and his brother to the county jail in downtown Birmingham.


Pettway, the first African American sheriff elected to represent Jefferson County, said it is important for his administration to memorialize King and other civil rights activists.

“I want to educate citizens about the county’s history. I want the general public to better understand what the movement provided for all of us, and not just a few. It was and still is a continuous sacrifice,” he said.

The seventh floor of the downtown courthouse is used for storage and is where air-conditioning units are installed. The sheriff and county leaders want to renew that area as a place where students and tourists can see “hidden treasures” of history — the jail cells; the docket by which King, the Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and the Rev. A.D. King were signed into the jail; mug shots of the ministers when they were jailed, and a telegram to King from boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

Jefferson County Commissioner Lashunda Scales said it’s important to preserve Jefferson County history while embracing the spirit of change.

“In order for Jefferson County to truly move forward, we must first recognize our past mistakes, take corrective action and move forward with a sincere desire to embrace people from all walks of life,” said Scales.

This story originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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