Paul L. Caron

Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Tax

Mlk_2In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: reports on how some southern officials tried to use state tax laws to stop King and the nascent civil rights movement:

  • "In Alabama, ... Governor John Patterson in early 1960 directed state revenue authorities to charge Martin Luther King, Jr., with tax evasion and perjury in completing his Alabama state income tax returns. The charges against King, who had already moved his ministry from the Dexter Street Church in Montgomery to his father's church in Atlanta, specified that he had diverted money raised for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) into his own pockets without ever reporting it as income." Kermit L. Hall, "Lies, Lies, Lies": The Origins of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 9 Comm. L. & Pol'y 391, 404 (2004).
  • "The only person ever prosecuted under the Georgia income tax perjury statute was Martin Luther King." Corey R. Chivers, Desuetude, Due Process, and the Scarlet Letter Revisited, 1992 Utah L. Rev. 449, 454 n.27.

Update:  The Tax Girl adds to the story:

In his autobiography, Dr. King described the trial like this: This case was tried before an all-white Southern jury. All of the State’s witnesses were white. The judge and the prosecutor were white. The courtroom was segregated. Passions were inflamed. Feelings ran high. The press and other communications media were hostile. Defeat seemed certain, and we in the freedom struggle braced ourselves for the inevitable. There were two men among us who persevered with the conviction that it was possible, in this context, to marshal facts and law and thus win vindication. These men were our lawyers-Negro lawyers from the North: William Ming of Chicago and Hubert Delaney from New York.

And something quite remarkable happened. On May 28, 1960, only after a few hours, Dr. King was acquitted by an all white jury in Montgomery, Alabama.

Dr. King said about his trial: I am frank to confess that on this occasion I learned that truth and conviction in the hands of a skillful advocate could make what started out as a bigoted, prejudiced jury, choose the path of justice. I cannot help but wish in my heart that the same kind of skill and devotion which Bill Ming and Hubert Delaney accorded to me could be available to thousands of civil rights workers, to thousands of ordinary Negroes, who are every day facing prejudiced courtrooms.

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I posted recently on the litigation surrounding the estates of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Reports note that Dexter King, who has just been sued by his siblings, is president of the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. Inc. The articles have been scant on the details of that company, but it seems as though there would be some significant tax issues in the choice of entity. Among other things, the company sold some images and papers of Dr. King for $30 million. Perhaps it was organized as a non-profit in which case Dexter could be facing liability to the IRS in addition to his siblings.

My brief post ( concerns only some of more mundane estate planning issues, but I would be interested to read your thoughts on tax angle of this story.

Posted by: Jerrold Bartholomew | Jul 15, 2008 2:25:47 PM

I first met MLK when he received an honorary degree from Howard Univesity Law School in 1957. I was the only white on the law school facualty for a time there. I was asked to teach a course in Law and Acctg and some tax just after Brown v Board of Education was decided. My wife and I had the privilege of sitting next to the Kings at the dinner the evening before and I at the ceremony.....not because I was very important at that time ...but I was the only white in attendance. I accused the dean of my being his "show white". It was a remarkable experience...Faye and I still recall it vividly.

Posted by: sheldon s. cohen | Jan 21, 2008 9:08:28 AM