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Media lawyers frequently describe New York Times Co. v. Sullivan as a great win for the press. Certainly the Court's ruling saved the New York Times from financial ruin. However, four Alabama ministers active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Ralph D. Abernathy, Joseph E. Lowery, Fred L. Shuttlesworth, and S.S. Seay Sr., were also targeted by Sullivan as defendants. Despite testimony that the ministers had not authorized the use of their names in the advertisement, "Heed Their Rising Voices," and learned of the ad only when Sullivan asked them for a retraction, the jury found each liable for defamation along with the New York Times. In partial settlement of the $500,000 libel judgment, Alabama authorities confiscated the ministers' bank accounts and sold automobiles and real estate owned by the ministers.

Sullivan was not the only successful plaintiff; a few months after the New York Times v. Sullivan verdict, Earl James, mayor of Montgomery, also won a $500,000 verdict against the New York Times and the four ministers. The financial persecution of the ministers drove the leadership of the SCLC out of the "toughest parts of the South."' As William P. Rogers, attorney for the ministers, told the Court, should the libel judgment against the ministers stand, the cause of civil rights "will be set back a great many years."