Sheriff Mark Pettway said the civil rights leader was held on the floor in 1967, when he served three days for contempt after losing an appeal on his conviction for demonstrating without a permit years earlier. A timeline produced with the help of the King estate cites the stint as King's last time in jail.
King was assassinated about five months later in Memphis, Tennessee. A small area including two pale-green cells, an isolation chamber, a shower and mechanical equipment are all that remain from the old jail. The county doesn't know whether King was held in that exact section or another section that has since been removed.
But commission member Lashunda Roberts-Scales said it was important to preserve what's left of the jail regardless since King was there. The community needs to “recognize it past mistakes” to move forward, she said.
“We believe that the public should have the right, for educational purposes, to know about King's last movements before he was assassinated. That's very important to us," said Roberts-Scales. The county plans to convert the area into a tourist attraction that could open soon, she said.
An old jail log that includes King's name and that of his brother, A.D. King, hangs in a conference room at the office of Pettway, the first black sheriff in Jefferson County. Pettway said he first saw the old jail after joining the department as an officer in 1999 but didn't realize its connection to King until a worker showed him the booking record recently. He called the jail remnants a “hidden treasure” that was largely forgotten.
“The last time he was arrested, the last time he was housed in a jail, it was in the county jail here in Jefferson County," said Pettway. King was jailed multiple times while leading civil rights demonstrations, and the courthouse jail was separate from a city facility where King wrote his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in 1963. Officials previously placed a historic marker at the site of that jail, which was demolished.