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What does Martin Luther King Day have to do with taxes?

Write-Off: The Tax Blog

Martin Luther King Jr. has a lot to do with taxes, as does any interesting and important topic, person, event, or anything else. My first realization of the connection to Martin Luther King and taxes first occurred to me when The King Center, a center which focuses on helping understand Martin Luther King Jr., opened its digital archives. These archives had thousands of documents related to Martin Luther King Jr–letters he wrote, letters he received, speeches he gave, etc. While these digital archives have sadly been closed down since, when they were open, if you typed “tax” into the search bar, you got many, many results. Taxes are often used as a tool for social manipulation, for good or ill. Two specific examples, both when taxes were meant for ill: Martin Luther King Jr. was very instrumental in helping with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964. One of the key features of this bill was the banning of poll taxes. In this context, we refer to poll taxes as taxes that were implemented, mostly in southern states, as a way to change the demographics of the electorate, and, in many cases, pretty explicitly to keep black people from voting. While poll taxes certainly made it harder for poor people to vote generally, it did target blacks specifically. For example, in The Tax Museum, I have many poll tax receipts. Two of these receipts are illustrative. One is a poll tax receipt from Arkansas from 1916, the other from 1917. What is the difference in the receipt from these two years? In 1917, they added a line for “color.” It seems likely that poll tax collectors wanted data on color in Arkansas not so they could ensure equal access to the polls by race, but rather, so they could prevent it. Martin Luther King Jr. fought hard against poll taxes, and, in his lifetime, saw them abolished.

The second connection between Martin Luther King Jr. and taxes is more direct. Martin Luther King Jr. has the distinction of being the only person in Alabama history to have been tried under the state’s income tax perjury statute. In 1960, politicians in Alabama and elsewhere where looking for any way possible to stop the work Martin Luther King was doing, putting up roadblocks, and, generally trying to make his life miserable. One way in which they did this was indicting King for perjury with regards to his income taxes. Why perjury? Tax evasion was a misdemeanor at the time in Alabama. Perjury was a felony. Those out to get King wanted him in jail for a long time, and, a felony would be the best way to accomplish that. The tax system was used as a weapon of the state to try to hurt parties politicians did not like–the tax system had been weaponized against the enemies of the state. So, did the weapon work? Note that I said that MLK was the only person tried, not convicted. Indeed, MLK was not convicted of this crime. Why not? Amazingly, it was because Dr. King did not commit perjury, and, a jury of 12 white men heard the evidence, and, despite being Montgomery Alabama in 1960, found Dr. King innocent. Fred Grey, Dr. King’s attorney, put together an all-star team of tax lawyers and CPAs, that convincingly proved King’s innocence. The jury simply ruled the case in line with the evidence, which was not necessarily the expected outcome in those days for that type of trial. Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, summarized the trial in this way: “A southern jury of twelve white men had acquitted Martin. It was a triumph of justice, a miracle that restored your faith in human good.” There is nothing like taxes being used as a political weapon, but failing, to restore your faith in human good.

But, that is not actually the end of the story. Some of Martin Luther Kings’ allies, in response to the harassment by the state of Alabama against King, took out a full page ad in the New York Times outlining the harassment of King. And, a politician from Alabama, Lester Sullivan, sued the New York Times over that ad, saying it was libelous. What happened? In a now famous Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan, the court sided with the New York Times, further protecting newspapers’ ability to print facts without being sued for libel.

To listen to the full story of the tax perjury trial of Martin Luther King, here is an interview with Edgar Dyer about the incident, click here.

So, if you ever wondered what the connection between Martin Luther King Jr. and taxes is, now you know two interesting examples, of many, because there are always many tax tie-ins to anything, including Martin Luther King.


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