On Oct. 19, 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. and dozens of young protesters were arrested in downtown Atlanta for participating in a sit-in demonstration at Rich’s department store, setting off a series of historic events.
“King didn’t like to be arrested. He was not like John Lewis,” King’s biographer Clayborne Carsonv told AJC.com, referring to a later conversation King had with his wife, Coretta Scott, where he said that the loneliness of prison was too difficult to bear, adding: “He just broke down and cried and then he felt so ashamed of himself.”
“Even the Rich’s arrest,” Carson continues. “I don’t sense that he meant to get arrested when he came to Rich’s that day.”
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Dr. King was arrested over 20 times during his 13 years as a civil rights leader, mostly on misdemeanors related to civil protest.
He was arrested in Fulton County, Georgia in the 1960 incident which led to a jail sentence.
Now, on the eve of the anniversary of King’s April 4, 1968, assassination, Fulton County Solicitor General Keith Gammage has promised to clear his criminal record in the county.
“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?” said Gammage, 48. “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.”
Since 2017, Gammage — Fulton’s leading misdemeanor prosecutor — has cleared the records of more than 3,000 people who have had non-violent and low-level charges hanging over their heads. His 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.
“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.”