Jefferson County Commission to preserve former jail that held Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967

MLK Jail 2 Jefferson County Commission to preserve former jail that held Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967
Jefferson County exhibit that documents Martin Luther King. Jr.’s stay in the Jefferson County Courthouse jail in 1967. Photo courtesy of Jefferson County Commission

Earlier this month, the Jefferson County Commission unanimously passed a resolution to memorialize and preserve the former county jail space, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was held in 1967.

Last Arrest

Located on the seventh floor inside the County Courthouse, King was confined following his arrest after getting off an airplane in Birmingham.

According to a Jefferson County Commission news release,  this would become the last of King’s numerous arrests for civil disobedience, as the civil rights martyr was assassinated just months later on April 4, 1968.

“As the Jefferson County commission president pro-tem, I believe we should preserve Jefferson County’s history, while embracing the spirit of change that exists today,” said Lashunda Scales, who proposed the resolution.

Scales noted that while King’s 1963 arrest and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written while in the city jail, is world famous, few know about his stays in the Jefferson County jails at both courthouses in Birmingham and Bessemer.

In Birmingham, a portion of the former jail remains on the seventh floor, including two cells.  Scales wants the county to take additional steps to preserve the artifacts and make it available for public viewing.

MLK Jail 4 Jefferson County Commission to preserve former jail that held Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967
Photo of one of the jail cells discovered on the 7th floor of the Jefferson County Courthouse. Photo courtesy of the Jefferson County Commission

Support from Sheriff Pettway

Along with the Commission, Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway  also supported the resolution and presented several rare  photos and booking documents that showcase King’s connection to the jail.

“As the first African American sheriff to represent Jefferson County, it is very important to memorialize the work of King and others, which is the reason I am here today,” Pettway said. “I want to educate people and I want the public to understand what this man did for us. It was a continuing sacrifice.”

MLK Jail 3 Jefferson County Commission to preserve former jail that held Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967
Telegraph from Muhammad Ali. Photo courtesy of Jefferson County Commission

Scales called the resolution a first step in finally acknowledging an invaluable piece of county, state and national history.

Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is manifesting itself in the way Jefferson County is perceived today in Alabama as well as the nation,” Scales said. “In order for Jefferson county to move forward, it must first recognize its past mistakes, correct actions of old, and move forward with a sincere intent to embrace people from all walks of life.”

Stay tuned

We look forward to seeing the Commission continue its efforts to preserve and restore this important piece of American history.

Text of the Resolution

Photo via Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on Facebook

Below is the text of Resolution 5109 which was adopted by the Jefferson County Commission:

WHEREAS, Birmingham, Jefferson County, Alabama, is known throughout history as the location of numerous pivotal events during this country’s Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s; and

WHEREAS, among those many iconic moments in Civil Rights History is the final arrest of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and

WHEREAS, upon his arrival on October 30, 1967, in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King was immediately arrested by Jefferson County Sheriffs Deputies and transported to the Jefferson County Jail located in the County’s Bessemer Division; and

WHEREAS, upon recommendation by the Bessemer Police Commissioner to the Jefferson County Sheriff, Dr. King and his brother were transported to the Jefferson County Jail located in the Birmingham Division; and

WHEREAS, it is the desire of the Jefferson County Commission to honor history by the acknowledgment and preservation of the jail spaces in both the Birmingham and Bessemer Courthouses where Dr. King was held.

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED BY THE JEFFERSON COUNTY COMMISSION that it is its intent to honor history by the acknowledgment and preservation of the aforementioned spaces in recognition of the contributions to society by Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the place that Jefferson County holds in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

Articles: 2304