The enduring image of Dr. King for most Americans is of the great leader standing before a microphone and speaking soul-shaking, transformational words of truth. His speeches—whether “Give Us the Ballot” or “I Have a Dream”—powerfully examine the state of American democracy and call this nation to its highest self. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is among the most powerful messages of social justice ever delivered from behind bars.
However, Dr. King’s extraordinary oratorical and rhetorical gifts were only part of the reason that he became such a powerful civil rights leader. He also garnered the respect of people from around the country because of his willingness to sacrifice for his beliefs. This meant that Dr. King often allowed himself to be arrested and held in jail. Indeed, this is how the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) lawyers came to know Dr. King. LDF lawyers represented him throughout his years of leadership—during the 1963 Birmingham campaign, in Selma in 1965, and in many other places in the South. As Jack Greenberg, who succeeded LDF’s founder, Thurgood Marshall as our President and Director-Counsel noted in his acclaimed memoir, Crusaders in the Courts, “When a great leader of the mass movement emerged, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., LDF was his lawyer.”
LDF lawyer (and later federal judge) Constance Baker Motley recalled visiting Dr. King near Americus, Georgia where he was detained in a rural jail with Ralph Abernathy. Motley’s description of the conditions in the jail, which she visited with two local Black lawyers, is harrowing:
“…the three of us went in. I instantly ran back out, overcome by the stench… I finally decided that I had to go inside and talk to King. I saw him and Abernathy in their four-by-six-foot cell. It was July or August. The temperature must have been a hundred degrees. We could hear other prisoners in a back room yelling and moaning. Since the prison food was not edible, some women had brought food for King and Abernathy, which their jailers had placed uncovered on a table outside their cell and by then it was covered with hundreds of flies. King and Abernathy usually fasted while in jail. We spent at least an hour there without seeing anyone. Whether anyone could see us, I could not tell. I feared we would be ambushed… My visit to the jail was the most horrendous experience of my life. It was then I realized that we did indeed have a new civil rights leader—a man willing to die for our freedom”. 1
As we celebrate the life and leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., LDF encourages Americans to remember not only Dr. King’s words, but also his courage and his sacrifice in the service of justice. His words—powerful, inspiring, devastating in their truth—were drawn from this deep well of courage, from King’s belief in the obligation of every human being to fight for justice, and from his genuine love for humankind.
LDF was privileged to represent Dr. King—to visit him in the low places, to counsel him and other activists as they prepared for the Selma voting rights march in 1965 and the Poor People’s March in 1968, and to witness the rise of his leadership from Montgomery to Memphis. Civil rights lawyers bear witness to the struggles, sacrifices, and fears of our clients. In so doing, we see first-hand the depth of their courage.
And so, in celebrating Dr. King, we also honor all of our clients today—from Fayette, Georgia to St. Martin Parish, Louisiana; from Birmingham, Alabama to New York City; and in all of the towns in between, where men and women of courage have chosen to stand up for justice.
“The conditions of resistance and protest today may be vastly different from that prison where Dr. King was held in Georgia, but we recognize that to stand up and speak truth to power in your community still takes courage, commitment, and sacrifice,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s President and Director-Counsel. “In his or her own way, each and every one of our clients seeks to walk in the tradition of Dr. King. It is our honor to represent them and partner with them in the fight for equality and justice.”
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.