History | January 18, 2021 11:27 am

The Iconic Jailhouse Photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. That Took on a Life of Its Own

In 1967, Wyatt Tee Walker smuggled a camera into the Jefferson County Jail. Last year, the rights to his images were finally restored to the men who took them.

mlk wyatt tee walker birmingham jail
Revs. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Wyatt Tee Walker in the Jefferson County Jail in 1967
Wyatt Tee Walker/Theresa Ann Walker

Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker served as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s chief strategist and executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during key days of the Civil Rights movement. He is perhaps best remembered as Dr. King’s field general throughout the history-altering Birmingham Campaign (including in Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants), where his ambitious activism helped defeat the violent tyranny of segregationist Bull Connor.

In 1967, four years after their triumph in Birmingham — which was instrumental in the desegregation of not only that city, but the entire United States — King and Walker returned to Birmingham to surrender themselves after being found guilty of “Parading Without a Permit,” charges leveled for their nonviolent protests years earlier. Walker smuggled a small camera into the jail, which he and King used to shoot the iconic portraits of themselves pictured above.

After a lengthy legal battle, Walker’s wife Theresa Ann was able to secure the copyright for the two photos in January 2020, on the two-year anniversary of her husband’s death. Below, Walker’s son, Wyatt “Jay” Jr., relays the story behind the photos — one of which is the only photo in public circulation known to be taken by Dr. King.

The Birmingham Portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Wyatt Tee Walker

In the photo, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker are shown in the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham Alabama in October of 1967.

These two, along with Reverend’s Ralph D. Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth and several others, surrendered to the Birmingham authorities after the Legal Defense Educational Fund of the NAACP lost “Wyatt Tee Walker vs. The City of Birmingham” before the Supreme Court, 5-4.

The charge was Parading Without a Permit, which carried a five-day jail sentence. Faithful to the nonviolent credo, they broke the law, exhausted their legal remedies and then submitted to the penalty.

A Minox LX subminiature camera was smuggled into the jail by Walker, who taped it to his leg beneath his groin to secure this now world-famous photograph.

During their time incarcerated, Walker and King planned the Installation Service for Walker held March 24th, 1968 in Harlem at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, for which King preached for the last time in New York City -— 10 days later he was killed by assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.

In a little jailhouse interplay, King reversed places and took the photograph of his close friend and former Chief of Staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The photograph of Walker is the only known image taken by the President of the SCLC.

The irony is that the case — filed in 1963 against a segregated Birmingham — resulted in this cadre of nonviolent leaders serving time in a desegregated city four years later. The Birmingham Campaign “Project C” was directly responsible for the Public Accommodation Act of 1965, which by Federal Law desegregated all public facilities in the United States of America.

For many years, Walker was not credited as the author of this poignant and iconic image of Martin Luther King, Jr. behind the bars of his jail cell. Corbis-Bettman Archives/Getty Images had claimed Rights Management, with a hefty fee required for use of the image.

As of January 23rd, 2020, two years to the day of Walker’s passing, his wife Theresa Ann Walker secured Copyright for the famous portrait taken by her husband. It appears here with the permission of Theresa and Wyatt “Jay” Walker, Jr.

Words by Wyatt “Jay” Tee Walker, Jr.