Retired BPJ Member Mike Cody was a young lawyer in 1968 when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to fight for the rights of the striking sanitation workers. In a new interview at SuperLawyers.com, he remembers those historic days and the changes — for the world and for Memphis — that came from them.
Cody was part of a BPJ team headed by Lucius Burch that served as Dr. King’s lawyers in Memphis. In the latest interview, he remembers hearing the “Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple, sitting on a bed in Dr. King’s room at the Lorraine Motel listening to Burch quiz King about his plans to march, then driving home and hearing the news of King’s assassination on the radio.
It’s what came next for Memphis that isn’t as well-known.
“(I was) with Jim Lawson, a local minister who was in the strike operations, being sad about Dr. King being gone and asking what we were going to do now,” said Cody. “Where do we go from here?
“Jim mentioned to me that these garbage workers we were helping, he knew they had terrible working conditions, but they also couldn’t get a lawyer, (which they) needed for the contract or housing things or whatever people need lawyers for.
“So I told him that I would get some young lawyers if he could find me a place to house them. We would start a neighborhood legal services program to offer free aid to the garbage workers and their families or anybody else that couldn’t afford a lawyer. I had 35 lawyers that agreed, and they would see the clients (at Rev. Lawson’s church) and take the cases back to their office and handle them. We did that for two and a half years until the Office of Economic Opportunity gave us a quarter of a million dollars to run our initial program. (That program) still goes on now as Memphis Area Legal Services.”
Cody said he thinks of his time with Dr. King often. “When you live in the South, you can’t ignore—particularly in those years—the awfulness of segregation and oppression. You are motivated to say, ‘We have to keep on the case.’
Yet he feels some optimism: “When I talk to and think about young people coming along, they don’t have the hang-ups and many of the prejudices that my generation or my parents’ generation had, so I have a lot of hope that they are going to move this country more in the direction that I think it needs to go.”
Being a lawyer is a good way to do that, he said. “I think there’s a world of good work that young people can do in the field of law. It’s a wonderful opportunity for someone who wants to make a living and have a good life, but still use their tools to change and better people’s lives.”