ACLU Court Document Summons King’s Last Days

A recent reference inquiry brought to light a document within the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Records that provides a record of one of the events that took place in the days surrounding the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with Dean of the Chapel Ernest Gordon, at Princeton in 1960. Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series.

W.J. Michael Cody, an attorney in Memphis, who, along with his firm, represented King and other defendants in a case brought by the City of Memphis, inquired whether we had documents related to these events in the ACLU Records.

The court case at issue concerned the City of Memphis’ desire to prevent a march in support of striking sanitation workers—the city wished to ban the demonstration because an earlier sanitation workers’ march (held on March 28, 1968) had become disorderly and resulted in rioting and the use of aggressive law enforcement measures including mace and tear gas. King wished to lead another, peaceful march for the cause, but the City of Memphis obtained a temporary restraining order to prevent it from occurring (Cody, p. 700).

Cody, a former president of the West Tennessee Chapter of the ACLU, was contacted by ACLU General Counsel Mel Wulf, and asked whether his firm, Burch Porter & Johnson, would represent King in a case to lift the restraining order and allow the march to proceed legally. On the evening of April 3, in the midst of the defense’s preparations for the case, King gave his well-known “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to the sanitation workers and their families at the Mason Temple (Cody, p. 700).  According to the document below from the ACLU records, the hearing was held on the day of April 4, and the court decided that the march could proceed under a set of conditions that would help to ensure its orderliness.  That evening, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.

The three-page court document from the ACLU Records, filed April 5, 1968, indicates that the Counsel for the City changed its position after the tragic event and joined with the defendants in their efforts to allow the march to proceed with the provisions listed.

Opinion and Temporary Injunction (page 1), ACLU Records, Subgroup 2, Box 656, Folder 2

Opinion and Temporary Injunction (page 1), ACLU Records, Subgroup 2, Box 656, Folder 2

Opinion and Temporary Injunction (page 2), ACLU Records, Subgroup 2, Box 656, Folder 2

Opinion and Temporary Injunction (page 2), ACLU Records, Subgroup 2, Box 656, Folder 2

Opinion and Temporary Injunction (page 3), ACLU Records, Subgroup 2, Box 656, Folder 2

Opinion and Temporary Injunction (page 3), ACLU Records, Subgroup 2, Box 656, Folder 2

Cody recounts the complex and compelling events of this period in Memphis in his article “King at the Mountain Top: The Representation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis, April 3-4, 1968,” The University of Memphis Law Review, Vol. 41, pages 699-707.