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Dr. King's fights against injustice included a state tax battle

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. (Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash)

With much of the United States in the grips of severe winter weather, many of today's celebrations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life and legacy have been postponed.

If that's the case where you live, you can spend your extra time on this legal holiday reconnecting with King's works.

A good starting place is Britannia's timeline of King's life, travails, and accomplishments.

You'll also want to read some of his works. There is, of course, King's most famous speech, delivered to the throng of civil rights marchers who gathered around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963.

You also can read the Nobel Peace Prize winner's final sermon, the "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address on April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple in Memphis.

If you're spending the day with your children, you also might want to check out Stanford University, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute's recommended reading lists for youngsters and young adults.

King's core message, as his own works and the books about him show, went beyond racial injustice. He also addressed issues of gender stereotypes, poverty, and privilege.

MLK Jr injustic an oppressed pull quote

Unjustly applied tax law: There's also King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" while he was imprisoned for leading nonviolent civil rights demonstrations in Alabama in 1963. King explains in the letter his belief that people have a responsibility to follow just laws and a duty to break unjust ones.

King was familiar with how even just laws were selectively used during the Jim Crow era that led to the galvanizing of the Civil Rights movement. He personally was a target of Alabama tax officials, who used their authority to charge him with several state tax crimes.

Alabama tax department auditors' review of King's 1956, 1957, and 1958 tax returns led to misdemeanor charges of failing to report income. King said the money was gifts, specifically $500 to help him repair his home after it was firebombed 1956, and $1,500 to cover hospital costs from a 1958 stabbing.

Alabama tax officials disagreed, and reclassified the amounts as income. That resulted in King owing $1,722.23 in state back taxes and interest, which he paid.

But he was arrested anyway, this time on charges of falsifying his 1956 and 1958 state tax returns. That charge, officially perjury for swearing to a false return, was a felony in Alabama, with each count punishable by one to five years in prison.

A jury ultimately acquitted King of the tax charges after a six-day trial. But his case was one that highlighted the dangers of politicizing and weaponizing any tax system. That debate is continues today.

King's run-in with the tax collector is just one part of his life. His daughter Bernice King has a suggestion on how to recognize and celebrate all her father's battles against all types of inequities.

Don't just requote her father on this MLK Day, writes King on social media, but "encourage and enact policies that reflect his teachings."


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