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Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF) field secretary Anne Braden informs King that a witness in the state of Tennessee’s case against the Highlander Folk School testified that he had heard King declare: “White people should be murdered to force the Federal Government to support integration.”1 King replied to Braden on 7 October.2
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
454 Dexter Avenue
Dear Dr. King:
Last week I went down to Altamont, Tenn., to cover the hearings on the petition to padlock Highlander Folk School for The Southern Patriot.3
Your name came into the testimony, and you were badly misquoted on the witness stand. After the hearing, I talked to the witness who had given the testimony, and I am writing you because I think you will want to have full information on this episode in case the segregationists attempt to use it against you in some way.
It happened this way:
One of the witnesses presented by the state against Highlander was Ed Friend, of Georgia. You may recall that he was the man sent by Former Governor [Marvin] Griffin of Georgia to cover the 25th anniversary celebration of Highlander on Labor Day Weekend in 1957. You remember he represented himself to school officials as a free lance photographer and stayed around all weekend taking pictures. Later these pictures were used in that four-page slanderous brochure about Highlander published by the Georgia Education Commission and sent out all over the country.4
Last week he testified mainly about how he had seen people at Highlander drinking beer--since this was the line the state was taking in its current efforts to close the school. However, in the course of his testimony he got in some other points too. During cross-examination by Highlander’s lawyer, Cecil Branstetter of Nashville, this exchange took place (the following is not an exact word-for-word account--you’d have to get that from the official transcript--but this is the gist):
Branstetter: You came there because you wanted to know what discussions were taking place about how to bring about integration, didn’t you?
Friend: Yes, I did.
Branstetter: If there were any instructions being given on bringing about integration, you wanted to know about it?
Friend: Yes, I did. We still want to know.
Branstetter: And the only thing you saw you didn’t like was Negroes and whites dancing together, is that right?
Friend: The greatest objection I had was that one of the Negro preachers who was there said that white people should be murdered to force the Federal Government to support integration in the South--that was Martin Luther King.
By this time, the courtroom was in a good bit of confusion. It was late in the afternoon, and everybody was anxious to get away, anyway. There followed an exchange, of which I am sorry I did not get the wording, in which Branstetter asked Friend if Martin Luther King had made such a statement at Highlander and Friend replied no, that it wasn’t at Highlander. But unfortunately, Branstetter did not pursue the matter further or pin him down as to just what the statement was supposed to have been or when it had allegedly been made. Many people in the courtroom
apparently did not hear this latter exchange and some left with the impression that Friend was quoting from a speech you had made.
The next day, the Nashville Tennessean in its Sept. 15 issue, reported the incident with this paragraph:
“Highlander students and staff members in the courtroom burst into a roar of laughter when Friend testified, ‘the biggest objection I had was that one of the Negro ministers there at that time--Martin Luther King--advocated the murder of white people to force intervention of the federal government on the South.’”5
The Chattanooga Times for Sept. 15 reported it with this paragraph:
“He [Friend] said he came to Highlander also in the hope of meeting the Rev. Martin Luther King of Montgomery and to investigate what he said were charges that the Alabama Negro leader ‘was advocating murder to force Federal intervention to bring about public school integration.’”6
Meantime, immediately after Friend testified that afternoon, I followed him out of the courtroom to try to pin him down and get the straight story on this alleged quote from you. He was hurrying to get away, because Highlander lawyers were having a subpoena issued to hold him there for further cross-examination and he wanted to leave before it could be served. So I didn’t have long to talk to him. This exchange took place between us:
Me: Did you say Martin Luther King made that statement about murder that you quoted at Highlander?
Friend: I didn’t say he made it at Highlander.
Me: Well, did he make it anywhere?
Me: Did you hear him make it?
Friend: I certainly did.
Friend: Just a couple of months ago.
Friend: At Spellman College in Atlanta, at a meeting there. [Apparently he was referring to the Institute on Non-Violence in July, wouldn’t you suppose?]7
Me: Well, what did he say, exactly?
Friend: Pretty much what I testified. That was just about it.
Me: No, that couldn’t have been it, exactly. That’s not a natural way for somebody to word something in a speech. Even if you wanted to express that thought, you wouldn’t say in a speech, “I advocate that white people be murdered to force the Federal Government to support integration in the South.’ That’s too stilted. What were his exact words?
Whereupon Friend pulled out of his pocket a piece of paper on which he had some notes written and read to me what he represented as a quote from you. I was not taking notes so I’m sorry I don’t have the exact wording for sure, but it was some thing similar to this:
Friend: This is what he said: “In order to get the Federal Government into Alabama, some of my group are saying that white people must be killed.”
[A far cry, certainly, from what he had said on the stand and what got quoted in the press the next day.]
I commented: “Well, that certainly doesn’t sound to me as if he were advocating Murder.”
To which Friend replied: “Well, he was the one who was up there making the speech and agitating the people.” With that, he dashed off--trying to get away from the subpoena.
So there you have it. It certainly shows how false rumors and cruel lies can get started.
Hope things are going well with you generally. By the way, Carl is planning to be in Columbia next week when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference meets there and is looking forward to seeing you.8
Please give Coretta my love. I so much enjoyed getting to know her a little better when I was in Montgomery in the summer. Sorry I missed you.
P.S.: Could you see that we are put on the mailing list to get any news releases either you or the Montgomery Improvement Association sends out? We would like to publicize these things in the Southern Patriot, which has a wide readership both South and North. Every once in a while we see things in other papers that we didn’t receive--for example, stories on your recent communications to school officials in Montgomery.9
TALS. MLKP-MBU: BOX PO.
1. For nearly two years, Tennessee authorities had campaigned to close Highlander for violating the state’s segregation laws. After a 31 July 1959 raid on the school, the charge of unlawful sale of alcohol was added to the state’s grievances (Mouzon Peters, “Highlander Case Opened; Beer Sales Labeled Issue,’’ Chattanooga Daily Times, 15 September 1959). While King declined a request from Highlander’s director to testify on the organization’s behalf during the November hearings, he did sign a petition “affirming the right of the School to exist and to do its educational work without recurrent intimidation” (King to Myles Horton, 19 October 1959, and Petition in support of Highlander Folk School, November 1959). In February 1960 a judge ruled against Highlander and, after numerous appeals that reached the Supreme Court, the school closed in October 1961 (“Charter Is Lost by Mixed School,” New York Times, 17 February 1960; see also Highlander Folk School et al. v. Tennessee Ex Rel. Sloan, District Attorney General, 368 U.S. 840 .
2. See pp. 306-307 in this volume.
3. For Braden’s coverage of the trial, see “Partial Victory at Highlander,” Southern Patriot, October 1959.
4. Georgia Commission on Education, “Highlander Folk School: Communist Training School, Monteagle, Tenn.,” October 1957. In September I 957, King delivered the closing address at Highlander’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration (King, “A Look to the Future,” 2 September 1957, in Papers 4:269-276).
5. Rudy Abramson, “State Witnesses Rap Folk School,” Nashville Tennessean, 15 September 1959.
6. Braden enclosed Friend’s name in brackets in original. Peters, “Highlander Case Opened; Beer Sales Labeled Issue.’’
7. Braden enclosed her inference in brackets in original. For information about the institute, see Resolutions, First Southwide Institute on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation, 11 August 1959, pp. 261-262 in this volume.
8. Braden’s husband, Carl, attended the SCLC conference in Columbia, South Carolina, on 30 September and 1 October 1959. For Braden’s notes on the conference, see Notes on SCLC Fall Session, 30 September--1 October 1959.
9. See King to the Montgomery County Board of Education, 28 August 1959, pp. 270-272 in this volume.