The Miller Law Firm Blog

Monday, March 30, 2020

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day - Civil Rights Hero and Criminal Justice Advocate

April 4th, 2020 marks the 52nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. As we reflect on the contributions Dr. King made towards the advancement of civil rights and economic equality in our country - I wanted to share a poignant story about a protest Dr. King held against an unjust legal system.


On Easter Sunday in 1958, Dr. King led a protest in response to the execution of Jeremiah Reeves, a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Jeremiah was only 16-years-old at the time of the alleged crime. He was a well-liked high school student, a jazz drummer and worked making deliveries for a local market.
Within minutes of his arrest, the teenager was taken directly to the local prison. He was interrogated continuously for two days and allowed to sleep little more than 20 minutes before an assistant warden strapped him into the electric chair.
Jeremiah was told that the only way to save himself from electrocution was to confess.
After spending a night strapped in the electric chair, the 16-year-old confessed to the rape.
It is unsurprising that Jeremiah ultimately recanted the confession. During the initial trial, Jeremiah's lawyers were not allowed to demonstrate to the jury how the coerced confession was obtained. After two days of testimony and just 30 minutes of deliberation, an all-white jury found Jeremiah guilty.


The judge, who routinely sent rapists to prison, sentenced Jeremiah to death by electrocution for the crime of raping a white woman. Questions swirled about whether Jeremiah was actually guilty. Many in the community believed Jeremiah and the woman were having an ongoing and consensual affair and that the woman only claimed rape after one of their sexual encounters was discovered by neighbors.
Jeremiah was ultimately granted a retrial. But once again he was promptly convicted and sentenced to death for the alleged rape that occurred when he was just 16-years-old. 
While major doubts still exist - the guilt or innocence of Jeremiah was not the focus of Dr. King's protest.
"It is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice," Dr. King stated. "Cases in which Negros are involved are handled frivolously, without regard to justice or proper correction…" Dr. King continued, "this is not a political issue: it is ultimately a moral issue. It is a question of the dignity of man."


These statements ring as true today as they did in 1958 - just over 60 years ago.


The Ku Klux Klan tried to disrupt Dr. King's rally, and afterwards, a group of thirty-nine local white ministers released a statement decrying the protesters' "exaggerated emphasis on wrongs and grievances."


Even today, 50 years after Dr. King's death, the disparate treatment of minorities persists and reflect a moral crisis in our country. Just as shocking and disheartening as the white ministers’ letter was above, many in our nation ignore or plainly deny that these injustices occur - often times minimizing or explaining them away as exaggerated.


If we are to truly cherish the memory of Dr. King, it is incumbent upon us to recognize that Dr. King would be protesting similar injustices today as he did on that Easter Sunday in 1958 - just over 60 years ago.
Whether it be disproportionate sentences handed down in our courts, the ravages of mass incarceration, the destructiveness of the war on drugs, or the brutality and disparate treatment minorities face at the hands of the police - miscarriages of justice continue at an alarming rate.


On behalf of Dr. King, we must recognize this uncomfortable and unjust reality and stand up and fight. If we fail to do our part, these injustices will continue.

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