In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. spent 11 well-documented days as a prisoner in the Birmingham City Jail. It was during that time that the Civil Rights leader produced his immortal treatise on nonviolence in the form of a letter written from his cell.
Less remembered by history is King’s last stretch in Birmingham’s municipal lockup, four-and-a-half years later. In the culmination of a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a 1963 conviction of King in Birmingham Municipal Court was upheld. On October 30, 1967, the minister flew from Atlanta to Birmingham in preparation for serving the five-day jail sentence that came with the conviction. Five months after completing that sentence, King would lie dead in Memphis, slain by an assassin’s bullet.
“The charge was parading without a permit,” veteran Birmingham newsman Dave Perry recalled during a visit to Weld’s offices last week. Perry was there to talk about King’s 1967 return to Birmingham, which he covered start-to-finish as the young news director for Birmingham’s WSGN Radio. The station in those days was by far the dominant broadcast news operation in the city, at times commanding as much as 60 percent of the local radio audience (in today’s market, 6 percent is an enviable share).
“We owned the market,” Perry declared. “The television stations were still shooting film, so they had no live capability. If you looked out the window and saw smoke, you didn’t turn on the TV. You tuned into WSGN.”
While at Weld, Perry also shared a recording of his exclusive interview of King, conducted the day of the minister’s release from the city jail.
One good turn…
“It came about unexpectedly,” Perry said of his one-on-one encounter with King. “Andrew Young arranged it. It was his way of paying back a little favor I had done for Dr. King and his people in Atlanta.”
An enterprising newsman, Perry had taken a flight to Atlanta on the morning that King was scheduled to leave for Birmingham. On arriving at the Atlanta airport, he promptly reserved a ticket on every flight to Birmingham that afternoon and evening. His plan, loosely stated, was to be on the same plane as King — and to foil the best efforts of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department to keep King away from the news media.
“The court ruling was actually against King and a few others who had marched with him,” Perry recounted. “The others had flown to Birmingham the week before. There were reporters and cameramen at the airport when they arrived, but the sheriff had deputies go to Atlanta and fly back on the same plane. They placed them under arrest on the plane and hustled them down the ramp and into cars that were waiting on the tarmac.
“I was not going to be snookered again,” Perry said. “So I went to Atlanta.”
Waiting around the Atlanta air terminal, Perry spotted two Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies he knew (one of whom was David Orange, who would go on to serve two terms on the Jefferson County Commission in the 1980s). A little later, Perry saw Andrew Young, the future U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta who was then one of King’s top lieutenants. He approached Young, telling him the two deputies would be on the Birmingham flight, and that they would arrest King when the plane landed and spirit him away.
“I told him that there would be media at the Birmingham airport, but that Dr. King would have no access to them,” said Perry. “I said, ‘If you want to get any mileage out of this, you’d better call a news conference here.’ So they did, which was fine with me, since I was the only Birmingham journalist there. I think they really appreciated what I’d done.”
Perhaps in an immediate expression of gratitude, Young told Perry which flight King would be taking to Birmingham. Cancelling all but that reservation, Perry was on the same plane, where he noted — and, on landing, reported live — that the deputies sat in first class, while King and his entourage flew coach.
“I don’t think David Orange ever forgave me for that,” Perry said with a laugh. “They were already none too happy with me for outfoxing them at the airport. I’ll never forget the shock on their faces when they spotted me over there. And then to have it reported that they were flying first-class — it didn’t make me very popular with the Sheriff’s Department.”
When the plane landed in Birmingham, Perry got off while the deputies were placing King under arrest. He contacted the WSGN control room by walkie-talkie and went on the air to report the arrest. Then, along with the rest of the local and national media on hand at the airport, he made his way to the Jefferson County Courthouse, where the offices of Sheriff Mel Bailey were housed — and where Perry and his fellow reporters found they’d been snookered again after all.
“Bailey had said King was going to be brought downtown,” Perry recalled. “But that’s not what happened.”
With no sign of King, nor any indication where he might have been taken, the assemblage of journalists, in Perry’s phrase, “began to get a little pissed off.” Perry took to the air again, standing in a courtyard just outside the door of Bailey’s office. He told his listeners that King had been loaded into a sheriff’s car at the airport, that no one seemed to know where the minister was, and that Sheriff Bailey was locked in his office and would not provide any information. Seconds after Perry signed off, Bailey’s door burst open.
“I don’t know if he’d heard me on the radio,” Perry chuckled, “but out came the Sheriff. He announced that due to security concerns, Dr. King had been transported to Bessemer. Then he went back inside.”
At some point, King was transferred to the Birmingham City Jail to begin his sentence. In what might have been an attempt by the Birmingham Police Department to minimize media coverage, he was released unceremoniously on Friday, November 3, after serving only four days. When Perry found out, he said, “I was going crazy.” Then he got an idea.
“I called the A.G. Gaston Hotel and asked for Andy Young,” Perry said, referring to the motor court on Fifth Avenue North that had long served as King’s unofficial headquarters in Birmingham. “I got hold of him and he said, ‘Yeah, Dr. King is here. Come on down now and I’ll get you an interview.’”
A journalist’s job
Nearly a half-century later, the 75-year-old Perry demurred that the suddenness of the opportunity gave him no time to prepare, and that the resulting interview “was not my best work.” But a listen reveals that Perry made the most of his brief time with a man who by November 1967 had been living on the knife’s edge of renown, influence, adulation, official harassment, violent opposition and death threats for more than a dozen years.
Over the course of six-and-a-half minutes, a tired-sounding King assessed the progress of the Civil Rights struggle (“It’s much more difficult than it was in 1963. … We are now dealing with hard economic problems and housing problems. All of these things are much more difficult to get at”); talked about his perception of changes in the racial climate in Birmingham (“Certainly things are different today…[but] there is still much that has to be done in Birmingham before we can really say that justice is a reality for all people”); and revealed that he had been “sick most of the time” that he had been in jail.
Perry also questioned the civil rights leader about a “re-evaluation” of the Movement, and “any new thoughts in your mind, any new plans formulated” during his days in confinement. In response, King talked of plans to “escalate nonviolence…elevating it to the point of civil disobedience.” He declared, “We’ve got to have another Birmingham or another Selma experience to deal with the economic issues” that were becoming his primary concern.
King declined to provide further details, telling Perry that it would “be another month before we announce our real plans.” In retrospect, it’s clear that he was outlining the “Poor People’s Campaign” that he would make public a little more than three weeks after his conversation with Perry (King would return to Birmingham to promote the campaign in February 1968). The plan was to occupy Washington with a nonviolent “army,” demanding jobs and economic freedom for the poor of all races. It was a definitive effort by King to expand the meaning and scope of the Civil Rights Movement — an effort he would not live to lead.
Looking back on his moment with King, Perry engaged in some additional recriminations about his line of questioning, saying, “I was focused on any future plans King had for Birmingham, and may have failed in not pursuing bigger issues.” Finally allowing that, “I guess did okay,” he offered a benedictory reflection.
“If you care about what you do, you always wish you’d done better,” Perry said. “But that was a great moment for me, and I’m very proud to have had the opportunity. I recognized that I was talking to one of the great figures in American history. As a journalist, that’s precisely why I worked so hard to outsmart the Sheriff, beat my competition and take possession of the story of Dr. King’s arrest.
“I was doing my job.”