For Mike Cody, April 4, 1968, could have been a day he’d remember for helping win a federal court fight for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, it was the day the civil rights leader was assassinated.
Cody recently told an Emory University School of Law audience about huddling in a small room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before King’s death. Facing each other on twin beds were Cody and his boss on one side, and King and some of his lieutenants, including future Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, on the other.
For the 32-year-old Cody, he said, “It was kind of surreal.”
At issue was a federal injunction the Memphis government had secured to stop King’s plans to march in support of striking sanitation workers. A week before, King had come to Memphis to back the workers, but a march turned into a deadly riot. King promised to return for a peaceful demonstration—one that his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, would plan and control—but a federal judge initially agreed with city lawyers that the risk was too high for more violence.
Cody, who was involved with the American Civil Liberties Union, got a call from Charles Morgan of the ACLU in Atlanta about trying to get the injunction lifted.
Cody said allies of King, who had flouted state court judges’ injunctions against marches throughout the South, were determined to prevent King from violating a federal court order. To the ACLU and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Cody said, “That could be a terrible thing to do because the federal courts had been the bulwark … of the whole civil rights movement.”
Cody presented the issue to the top partner in his firm, Lucius Burch of Burch, Porter & Johnson in Memphis. The firm represented established clients such as railroads, banks and insurance companies, but Burch had also fought to desegregate libraries, parks, departments stores and lunch counters. Cody said Burch had persuaded him to come home to Memphis after law school at the University of Virginia on the promise he could be part of the changing society.
To Cody’s surprise, Burch had conditions for the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was seeking representation. First, Burch didn’t want it to look like the firm was volunteering, so he asked the ACLU to send a formal engagement letter, which in 1968 came by way of a Western Union telegram.
Burch also said he needed King personally to convince him the march was important enough to do—which led to the April 3 meeting in the Lorraine Motel. Burch decided to take the case, and the group determined that King should not testify, leaving that to Young and Jim Lawson, a Memphis pastor backing the strikers.
Cody worked with the witnesses to prepare for the next day’s hearing, then went to a church where King had been persuaded to address the community.
In what became known as the “Mountaintop” speech, King intoned that he’d “seen the promised land.”
“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Aside from taking in the dramatic scene—in a packed, non-air-conditioned church, with rain from strong thunderstorms coming in from open windows—Cody was concerned about a different part of King’s speech.
In it, King called for people to come to the march that was, for the moment, stopped by an injunction. “If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges,” said King. “But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. … Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.”
The next day, Burch, Cody and other lawyers went to court to challenge the injunction, lest their client try to honor his promise to violate a court order.
Throughout the Emory presentation, Cody downplayed his role in the case, crediting Burch instead. Showing a photo of King’s legal team heading to court, Cody said, “Look who’s carrying Mr. Burch’s books, umbrella and overcoat.”
Cody said Young testified to the SCLC’s experience in organizing peaceful marches, and they cited an order from U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson of Alabama allowing a march limiting each row of demonstrators to six people, none of whom could carry placards.
At the end of the day, the judge agreed to lift the injunction. Cody said he drove Young back to the Lorraine Motel and dropped him off, but before Cody got home he heard on the radio that King had been shot.
The march occurred four days later, and “it was a peaceful march, just as Dr. King had promised,” Cody said.
The strike settled in the wake of the assassination. Commiserating with Lawson soon after, Cody said Lawson noted that the sanitation workers still needed more than they had won from the strike. Lawyers, the pastor said, were a particular need, leading Cody to start a volunteer lawyer program that grew into Memphis’ legal aid service.
At the Emory event, an audience member asked whether Cody was ever afraid working on civil rights matters. Cody said he wasn’t—but only because “I had a major legal figure at my back,” meaning Burch. “It didn’t affect my livelihood.”
“Memphis was not Mississippi,” he added. He recalled that when volunteers came from northern cities to register black voters in Mississippi, allies in Memphis would switch cars with the volunteers, figuring they wouldn’t attract attention in cars with Tennessee license plates.
Cody went on to serve as Memphis’ U.S. attorney in the Jimmy Carter administration and served four years as Tennessee’s attorney general. He is a member at the Burch Porter firm.
At Emory, he was interviewed by Richard Deane, a former U.S. attorney for Atlanta and now a partner at Jones Day.
Cody said in April he will gather with other lawyers from the case, from both sides, to commemorate the 50th anniversary at the federal court in Memphis.