A Georgia county prosecutor has vowed to expunge Martin Luther King Jr.’s arrest record for encroaching during a 1960 sit-in, opposing the segregation of dining rooms at an Atlanta department store.
“I always had in my mind, what effect would it have if we expunged the record for arrests of Martin Luther King Jr and the other civil rights protestors and called those arrests what they were – unconstitutional and biased arrests?” Fulton County Solicitor General Keith Gammage told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“There is a gap between social justice-related protests and activism and a true criminal offense. And what the protesters and activists were fighting for, remains a barrier for other citizens today,” added Gammage.
The civil rights leader was arrested more than 20 times for acts of civil disobedience and on trumped-up charges, including when he was convicted of disobeying a police order and fined $14, but defaulted and spent 14 days in jail.
The 1960 arrest which occurred in Fulton County, Georgia during a sit-in whilst waiting to be served at an Atlanta department store led to four months’ prison sentence. King was, however, released after the intervention of then-presidential candidate John Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy.
Peniel E. Joseph, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the history department in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas, lauded the move to erase King’s criminal records.
“The record should be expunged in the sense that the society, and not Martin Luther King Jr., were the ones guilty of crimes of violence and illegality against black bodies in that generation,” Joseph told AJC.
“It’s important to recognize that as a corollary to expanding contemporary notions of guilt and innocence as we try to pursue expansive criminal justice reform in the state of Georgia and nationally,” he added.
Records of more than 3000 people who had non-violent and low-level charges have been erased by Gammage who is Fulton’s leading misdemeanor prosecutor since 2017.
Gammage’s misdemeanor expungement division offers free year-round access for people — who have been charged with crimes like possession of marijuana or criminal trespassing — to apply for what is officially known as criminal record restriction, AJC reports.
“Some of the people whose records we expunged were in their 70s who couldn’t get into senior housing for an arrest 20 years earlier for a $15 bad check or stealing a loaf of bread,” Gammage said. “What people have said it has been removing a yoke from around their necks.”
“Having a record can interfere with all kinds of opportunities, legally so. It stops them from doing what everybody wants them to do — take care of themselves and their families and have a quality of life,” Doug Ammar, the long-time executive director of the Georgia Justice Project said.
“Even posthumously, this will send a signal and educate people about the impact of the criminal justice system. If Dr. King had that issue with all of who he was, think of how much impact this is for people poor and people of color who don’t have access?” he added.
King was assassinated in 1968.