On April 3, 1968, Mike Cody was sitting in his Memphis law office when he got the call that Dr. Martin Luther King needed help. That phone call and the events that followed rocked the young lawyer and laid the foundation of values upon which he built his career.
Dr. King was coming to town to march for the rights of the sanitation workers to earn a living wage and basic benefits. The last time they marched in the city things had gotten out of hand. Violence broke out and people were killed. The City of Memphis went to federal court and got a temporary injunction preventing him from leading the march again. Dr. King was going to march regardless, but the ACLU knew that they needed the power and protection of the federal government on their side in such a hostile environment. The injunction had to be lifted.
Young Mike Cody hung up the phone and knew he was over his head. He headed for the office of his mentor the patriarch of this small law firm, Lucius Burch. A liberal in a conservative town, Burch knew there would be a price to pay if his firm got involved. Burch wanted to meet with King and his contingent and if it was truly important to Dr. King they would take the case and suffer any consequences.
The meeting took place in a small room at the Lorraine Motel -- the lawyers sat on one bed while Dr. King and his people sat on the other. Dr. King wasn't feeling well and had decided to skip his scheduled appearance at Mason Temple that evening. The group had just decided that they would go to court in the morning and present Andrew Young and Rev. James Lawson as their witnesses when the phone rang. It was Dr. Ralph Abernathy, who was at the church and told King that there was such a crowd that it was important that King himself speak and persuade them to join the march.
There were tornado warnings and it was a blustery night when Mike Cody went through the side entrance to the church and stood at the side as Dr. King spoke. He noticed that Dr. King flinched each time thunder roared through the open rafters. King started slowly and eloquently, and his passion rose as he proceeded. He dismissed the injunction that the lawyers would be fighting that next day in court:
Now about injunctions: We have an injunction and we're going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, 'Be true to what you said on paper.' If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn't committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. 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 dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren't going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.
Of course the young civil rights lawyer was moved when he heard the rest of the speech, which also moved the nation. When Dr. King spoke of looking over the mountain and seeing the promised land, Mike Cody wasn't thinking of premonitions or the end of a dream. He was thinking that he was playing a very small part in a very big thing: he was part of a movement to make America the country it had always said it wanted to be.
The lawyers went to court the next day and late that afternoon, the judge indicated that he would be lifting the injunction. Cody dropped Andrew Young back at the Lorraine Motel so that he could tell Dr. King the good news. The young lawyer headed home, but before he got there the radio broke the tragic news.
At first they announced only that King had been shot, but did not confirm that he was dead. Along with the rest of Memphis and the nation, Cody was clinging to that faint hope when his phone rang. Riots were breaking out. The police asked to take Cody out to one of the worst areas so that he could find Reverend James Lawson and maybe talk the people down from their rage. He sat in the back of the police car as it roared through the city streets and absorbed the news. They dropped him off and left quickly. Fires were burning, looters pillaging, and angry teenagers dropping bricks off the tops of buildings. His was one of only a few white faces on the street.
Cody didn't feel fear, he was sad and he was angry too. But he knew that violence was no answer to the death of such a peaceful man. He found the minister and the crowds calmed down.
The next morning he and his partner went back to court and got the judge to sign the order that would allow the march to take place without its leader. Cody and his fellow lawyers marched alongside the giants of the civil rights movement who came in solidarity. Memphis changed the way it paid and treated its sanitation workers. In the coming years, the nation changed too.
Mike Cody helped organize local lawyers to keep regular office hours at night and on weekends in a neighborhood church, so that those same workers could have their legal rights protected. That effort turned into Memphis Area Legal Services and thrives today. He ran for City Council and won, paying special attention to the conditions of the city's workers. Cody was appointed United States Attorney and later served with distinction as Tennessee Attorney General. All the while, from the inside of power and on the outside, he has tried to be an advocate for economic justice, for the Bill of Rights to be a living, meaningful document, and to "let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Sometimes he has succeeded. Sometimes he's failed. But ever since those fateful 24 hours in his hometown, he has never stopped trying.
As we mark the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. this week, Mike Cody's story reminds us of a few things: Change is slow coming, but it does come. It takes courage and determination. But if the cause is righteous, the dream will not die -- Mike Cody is one of many who will not let it.