In a long but necessary string of legal actions during the Civil Rights Era, a motion to allow Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to lead an April 5 march in Memphis was pretty routine, legally speaking.
“One thing that people don’t understand is that on April 3 and April 4, Dr. King was a significant person, but (getting an injunction lifted) wasn’t any big, big deal,” said J. Michael Cody, who was on King’s Memphis-based legal team in 1968. “So, we were looking at it as just a case for sort of a controversial person that would be over as soon as the court either lifted the injunction or said, ‘Dr. King, you’ll have to march in the face of the injunction and we’ll arrest ya.’
“We didn’t think that there’d be any history books about this,” Cody continued in an exclusive talk with The New Tri-State Defender. “It was only when Dr. King was killed that gave this so much significance, including his last speech.”
By his own admission, Cody was a novice attorney at the time. “I was there mostly to carry Mr. Burch’s books,” he chuckled as he pointed himself out in a photo that included his boss and mentor Lucius Burch, along with King’s lieutenants, Andrew Young and James Lawson.
Cody said he had been present at meetings with Dr. King in the mid-1960s, but only met him for the first time on April 3. By that point, an earlier scheduled march had veered toward violence and rioting. King briefly led the march, but was whisked away, to avoid him being associated with the violence.
Despite the romantic notion that Black America was united behind nonviolent change, the fact is that some Black Power activists were fed up with being brutalized for walking down a street. That, combined with the underlying economic injustice embodied by the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, created an air of tension when Dr. King arrived in Memphis in April, Cody said.
“His popularity was beginning to shift from just being the civil rights leader to opposing the Vietnam war, talking about minimum wage guaranteed payment, the economic part,” Cody said. “That’s why he was so keen about Memphis. (The strike) was a poverty issue more than it was a civil rights issue. The demonstration was a civil rights issue, but the poverty of the garbage workers was the reason that he was there.”
And so there Michael Cody was in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel on April 3 — along with Lawson, Young, Burch, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson and others. He recalls King feeling pressure to prove that nonviolence could still work.
“He said, ‘You know I’m being criticized that I can’t lead a peaceful march, non-violently and get results for these sanitation workers.’” Cody said. “‘If I can’t show I can do that, my whole history is history and I can’t do it in Washington.’
“‘I have got to show that it’ll work because if I don’t, the young people will turn to the Black Power.”
And then a shot rang out on April 4. “And it was all over,” Cody said.
When King was shot, riots broke out in Northern cities, including Detroit, Chicago and Washington, D.C. And while there was unrest in Memphis, leaders like Lawson and Memphis icon Benjamin Hooks issued a critical call for order, Cody said.
“Jim Lawson, Ben Hooks and the other people got on the radio and on the television here in Memphis and said, ‘Riots are breaking out in other parts of the country. The worst thing that could happen in Memphis is for people to resort to violence and riots because that would dishonor everything Dr. King lived his life for. Dr. King would want you to be respectful and get on with carrying on his legacy, not tearing up things in Memphis.’”
Soon afterward, a federal court lifted the injunction preventing a march in Memphis. And just four days after the fatal shot, Coretta Scott King returned with her family for a silent march.
“That’s the only march that took place in Memphis after Dr. King’s death,” Cody recalled. “Thousands of people marched from Clayborn Temple on up Main Street to City Hall. You had people like Harry Belafonte and Dr. Spock and Andy Young, you know, all the civil rights leaders were here.”
And even though he only met King in his final hours, Cody marveled at how mundane that April 3 meeting in Room 306 actually was.
“I expected Dr. King to be articulate, learned, smart, charismatic. And in that meeting with him, he was all of that and more,” Cody said. “But, the difference was, (just like) you and I are sitting across the table having a talk, in that room for those hours, it was just Lucius Burch and Dr. King and occasionally Andy Young talking about why the march needed to take place, what they wanted to prove by having the march, what we needed to do to get the court to authorize it.
“There were no big speeches or anything else,” Cody said. “It was just a conversation.”