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Martin Luther King faced criticism from clergy leaders in Birmingham Alabama for his direct actions in “their” town in April 1963. They saw him as an outsider (King was based in Atlanta, GA) and as an agitator. They asked him to refrain. He did not. He led a civil disobedience action against the businesses in downtown Birmingham and was arrested for it.
From jail, King wrote a letter explaining why an “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It was a phrase he’d repeat many times. Letter From Birmingham Jail became one of the key texts of the Civil Rights Movement. Al Jazeera contends that the letter set the tone for the movement and paved the way for the March On Washington four months later, in August 1963.
In April, 1963, King wrote from jail:
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Read the letter in full here.
I did some internet digging and turned up these images of King’s 1963 arrest.
King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy (left) led a line of demonstrators into the business section of Birmingham, Alabama on April 12th, 1963.
Abernathy and King are taken by a policeman, Birmingham, Alabama, April 12, 1963.
And then at Montgomery County Jail, this mugshot. You can see the date 4.12.63 in the lower right.
And later in the jail.
1958 + 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama
Sometimes the image below is thought to be from the same day. But it is in fact from 1958. The same Montgomery County and likely the same jail.
King wore a white shirt on both occasions, in 1958 he also wore a tie, beige suit and hat. In 1963, King showed up (knowing he was going to be arrested) in jeans and a denim shirt over his white shirt.
As for the mugshot below, you’ve seen it … or at least versions of it. You may not be familiar with the exact version below which has been *vandalised* with a biro scrawl of the date of King’s death.
This image here is a copy of the original file that was kept at the Montgomery Sheriff’s Department. In 2004, a deputy rediscovered the files of King and his fellow protestors from 1958. Therefore, prior to 2004, only unscrawled versions of King’s mugshot circulated.
When one pauses to think about this, it’s quite curious. And it’s quite perverse. Who scrawled on MLK’s mugshot? Someone on the Montgomery County Sheriff’s staff returned to the archive, ten years after the photo was made, to write upon the mugshot that the subject was dead.
Was this standard practice? I doubt it. Say for example, someone gets in a fist-fight, in some year in the late ’50s, in some part of Montgomery County, and was booked into jail. Then suppose, for arguments sake, that that same person died a decade later in another state. It’s not likely the Montgomery Sheriff would even know, let alone direct her or his staff to doctor an archived booking photo. Which leads me to believe that an employee took it upon themselves to return to the file to annotate the photo.
What a strange and disturbing act. Was it born of self-directed stupidity; a procedure by a bureaucrat going the extra mile to fill-in all known information in the crudest of manners? Does the act reflect a disdain for King? Keep guessing; it’s likely we’ll never know who scrawled all over this significant photographic document of the Civil Rights era.
ONE MORE THING
On today, Martin Luther King Day, may I also recommend Wil Haygood’s piece Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall and the Way to Justice.
In considering these two visionaries, Haywood outlines who then, now and our future relate. Amidst the current Black Lives Matter movement–when debate about the effectiveness (and speed) of change brought about by protest vs. legal process–is at the forefront, it pays to consider the lives of MLK, a non-violent and civil disobedient leader, and Marshall the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.
Only yesterday did I listen in full to MLK’s more-than-infamous I Have A Dream speech. Now I know that every American kid studies it in middle school, but I didn’t grow up in the U.S.
Not only did I listen, I watched. This animation — which was made in 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of MLK’s oration at the March on Washington in August 1963 — is just the most poignant and sensitive of treatments.
Today, the Huffington Post published 31 Reasons Philadelphia Is The Most Underrated City in America. Having spent two weeks in Philly recently, I can’t argue with most points (veggie friendly baseball park, c’mon!?).
But I can go further. Allow me to add a 32nd reason. Philadelphia’s anti-prison artists and activists.
Case in point: G-LAW. G-LAW, or OG-LAW (God’s Love Always Wins/God’s Love AT Work) is the adopted name of Michael Ta’Bon, an artist and activist who’s message is peace, love and no more prisons.
For the month of February, G-LAW lived in a self-built cell-sized space on the streets of Philly. Lori Waselchuk and I visited G-LAW on the first of the month to see how he was going with construction, buy a coffee and learn more about his project. These photos are from that day. I have not heard how the past four weeks have gone, but as with all of G-LAW’s public happenings, I am sure he’s raised a lot of eyebrows and a lot of discussions.
This isn’t the first time G-LAW has protested prison construction, poverty, inequality and hate. He has jogged 10 miles a day for seven days around Philadelphia with a 40-foot banner reading FIGHT HATE WITH LOVE; he has walked with a ball-and-chain from Selma to Montgomery; and this is, in fact, the third time he’s spent the month of February on the Philly streets in his own prison cell. You can see coverage of the the first occasion in 2011 here and here. One year, he mounted the event in Atlanta.
“JAIL IS 4 SUCKAZ!” is one of G-LAW’s many tags lines. He means everyone. He means you. Taxpayers are suckers for stumping the bill to maintain abusive and broken prison systems. One side of his cell is emblazoned with the phrase.
The project as a whole is called The Un-Prison Cell. It’s “the only prison in America designed to keep you out,” laughed G-LAW. It sounds like progress on construction slowed in the days after I visited, due to vicious weather and troubles getting materials.
G-LAW was also away from the site on February 12th as he joined the monumental People’s Budget Hearing protest at the Pennsylvania capital building in Harrisburg (video, audio, photos). The People’s Hearing was organised by DecarceratePA, one of the most effective and inspiring anti-prison activist groups in the nation. Don’t believe me? Listen to DecarceratePA member Sarah Morris debate PA Prisons Secretary John Wetzel and call him out on the misinformation peddled by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to the state legislature justify proposed prison expansion.
It was through DecarceratePA that I learnt about G-LAW’s art — you can listen to him on their radio show.
Maintaining momentum against massive forces for grassroots movements is a constant effort. A large part of that is being relevant to people outside the choir, having press strategy and adopting visual strategy too. DecarceratePA’s 100-day #InsteadOfPrisons Instagram campaign was the first and only interesting anti-prison campaign use of Instagram I’ve seen. (I adopted the hashtag myself later to spread the words of PA prisoners who’s work was in Prison Obscura.) Also, look how incredible this visual statement is.
Philadelphia should be proud of its grassroots activism. Bravo. More.
Thanks to Lori for some images.
Someone accessed the police archive following MLK’s death to struggle with a biro pen in writing the date of his assassination.
We all know the famous photograph by Charles Moore of MLK’s arrest in Montgomery, Alabama and perhaps one or two photographs of MLK imprisoned in Birmingham Jail; MLK’s letters and the civil rights education have made the narrative and context for MLK’s arrests well known.
That is why I think an intimate tale into the biography of this mugshot would be fascinating. Through whose hands has it passed? How has it’s meaning changed? Is the copy with the scrawls the only original copy? Where are the original prints now archived?
The answers are probably easy to find and I’m just thinking out loud here.
THOUGHTS ON MUGSHOTS
This blog-post is just yet another seedling to a potential chapter of a potential book on mugshots.
I don’t think I’m the one to write a book about mugshots but a few trends make it a visual territory in rapid flux. The current racket and sleazy business opportunities they afford; the mugshot as ubiquitous as Facebook profile pics; their role as photobook Objet d’art; and mugshots’ new-found glory as consumer items, all point toward changing ideas toward – and uses of – this old photographic form.