Martin Luther King Jr. under shepherd’s watch: debunking urban legend

St. Petersburg Times photographer Bob Moreland took this photo in June 1964 after Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested during a St. Augustine, Fla., sit-in and was being transported to Duval County jail. The caption read: “Dr. King Sits in Patrol Car with Police Dog.”

As the country marks the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s day of celebration, I recall one photograph I have most often heard described as “eerie.”

It is one of those iconic images that, in almost every instance I have heard it described, the explanation provided is almost always wrong.

Most recently, during the MLK Heritage Lecture series at Poynter, two attendees asked me what I knew about the photograph. That conversation reminded me of a very similar one I had this summer with actor Forest Steven Whitaker at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Orlando, during the Visual Task Force Scholarship Auction.

When Whitaker asked, “what’s going on in this picture?” someone quickly quipped: “Dr. King is being protected by the German shepherd in a friend’s vehicle.”

This is like one of many legendary photographs in which people remember the image but not the headline or the authentic context.

On June 13, 1964, The St. Petersburg Times presented a front page news story above the fold under the headline “St. Augustine Negros, Klan March Peacefully” written by staff writer Martin Waldron. The article was accompanied by a two-column, black-and-white photograph taken by staff photographer Bob Moreland.

Dr. King had been arrested in St. Augustine two days earlier during a sit-in at the Monson motel restaurant. The article reports that, under the cover of night, King was transported from St. Augustine’s St. Johns County Jail to Duval County jail following death threats, and that he arrived in Jacksonville in a car with six police officers and a police dog.

Twice in the story the author used the word eerie. In the first sentence, and on the jump page with the headline “St. Augustine Demonstrations Peaceful But Eerie.”

The story actually quotes KKK leader J. B. Stoner of Atlanta, who the paper describes as a “cripple,” urging the crowd not to retaliate against “the niggers.”

The article is a fitting affirmation of the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. And sometimes a picture is worth a thousand pictures.

David Shedden, head of the Eugene Patterson Library at Poynter, contributed research for this article.

Related: Four lessons for media leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. and Gene Patterson | Flashback: Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter to southern editor Gene Patterson

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  • Adam Bruns

    Thanks, Kenneth and David. Eerily enough, this photo re-enacts a situation involving Dr. King’s first incarceration in 1963, the recounting of which I just read this morning in Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters.” He was transferred from a Fulton County jail to a DeKalb County facility in Atlanta wearing “not only handcuffs but also leg and arm shackles,” Branch writes. “The students fell silent enough to hear the clang of metal as King was marched briskly to a squad car and put into the backseat next to a police dog. The car sped away, leaving the students behind, helpless. As for King, who was trying not to look at the ferocious German shepherd beside him, it was sudden return to the terror of his first arrest nearly five years earlier in Montgomery, when visions of lynching had undone him.” Not long thereafter, Dr. King was moved in the middle of the night without explanation from the DeKalb County jail in to the maximum-security Reidsville State Prison … 230 miles away. Branch does not mention whether a dog was in that vehicle or not. But it doesn’t take much imagination to sense the fear that just the long drive alone must have engendered. Where some see (or pretend to see) protection, others often rightly see nothing but menace.