Georgia governor Ernest Vandiver expressed open hostility towards King’s return to his hometown in late 1959. He claimed that “wherever M. L. King, Jr., has been there has followed in his wake a wave of crimes”, and vowed to keep King under surveillance. On May 4, 1960, several months after his return, King drove writer Lillian Smith to Emory University when police stopped them. King was cited for “driving without a license” because he had not yet been issued a Georgia license. King’s Alabama license was still valid, and Georgia law did not mandate any time limit for issuing a local license. King paid a fine but was unaware that his lawyer agreed to a plea deal that also included a probationary sentence.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Student Movement had been acting to desegregate businesses and public spaces in the city, organizing the Atlanta sit-ins from March 1960 onwards. In August the movement asked King to participate in a mass October sit-in, timed to highlight how 1960’s Presidential election campaign had ignored civil rights. The coordinated day of action took place on October 19. King participated in a sit-in at the restaurant inside Rich’s, Atlanta’s largest department store, and was among the many arrested that day. The authorities released everyone over the next few days, except for King. Invoking his probationary plea deal, judge J. Oscar Mitchell sentenced King on October 25 to four months of hard labor. Before dawn the next day, King was taken from his county jail cell and transported to Georgia State Prison.