Alabama jail MLK, Jefferson County to preserve remains.
Jefferson County officials plan to preserve the last remaining part of the old county jail where Martin Luther King, Jr. spent time behind bars in the final months before his assassination.
“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 Jefferson County Commission President Pro-Tem Lashunda Scales in a statement.
Last Thursday, the Jefferson County Commission unanimously approved a resolution to preserve and memorialize the remaining jail cell from the old Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, located on the seventh floor of what is now the Jefferson County Courthouse.
Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies arrested King on Oct. 30, 1967 immediately after his flight landed in Birmingham. He and others, including his brother A.D. King, were taken first to the Jefferson County Jail in Bessemer, and then to the jail in Birmingham on contempt charges related to a conviction for failing to obtain a City of Birmingham parade permit.
The three days King spent in the Birmingham lockup in 1967 are believed to be the last time he was jailed before his assassination in April 1968.
The Commission’s resolution is the first step toward eventually creating a memorial and interpretive display in the seventh-floor jail area at the courthouse.
It’s not known exactly where in the old jail King was held. The county converted most of the seventh floor to storage and HVAC infrastructure in the 1990s, but left a small area with two adjoining pale green cells, an isolation chamber and some equipment.
“As the first African-American sheriff to be elected to represent Jefferson County, it is very important to my administration to memorialize the work of Dr. King and other Civil Rights activists,” said Sheriff Mark Pettway in a statement.
After Thursday’s commission meeting, Pettway showed media a framed page from the Jefferson County Jail docket book that indicates King and his brother A.D. were booked into the Jefferson County Jail on Oct. 30, 1967. The page now hangs in his office.
“I want to educate citizens about the county’s history,” Pettway said. “I want the general public to better understand what the movement provided for all of us and not just a few.”
The Jefferson County Commission plans to preserve the jail spaces in both the Birmingham and Bessemer courthouses where King was held, according to its resolution.
King was jailed in 1967 after his appeal of a contempt conviction failed. Years earlier, he and others were denied a parade permit by the City of Birmingham and announced they would march anyway, after the city said it would not grant a parade permit if they applied. The city obtained an injunction from state court that forbid demonstrators from marching. Those that did, including King, were arrested. In Walker v. City of Birmingham, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the arrests, saying the civil rights activists failed to use proper procedures to test the validity of the injunction. That’s what prompted Jefferson County officials to arrest King in October 1967 as soon as he arrived in Birmingham.
During an earlier stint at the now-demolished Birmingham City Jail in 1963, King wrote his now-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
The planned Jefferson County Jail memorial fills in another piece of King’s life, Scales said.
“As we talk about our (state) bicentennial and our forever-evolving of how we’re embracing people of all races, all backgrounds,” said Scales, “this is a part of that story.”