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VOL. 123 | NO. 66 | Thursday, April 3, 2008

Law School For Journalists to Focus On King, Civil Rights

By Bill Dries

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It is one of the last pictures taken of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The day before his 1968 assassination on the balcony of Downtown's Lorraine Motel, King is shown in the courtyard there being served legal papers by a U.S. Marshal.

Those federal court papers, part of an effort by the city to stop a march King planned to lead on April 5, 1968, are the focus of the Third Annual Law School for Journalists forum to be held April 26 at the National Civil Rights Museum.

The 9 a.m. panel discussion is one of several events at the museum this month
to mark the 40th anniversary of King's death.

It will examine how the media covered the key legal battle. Panelists will include Lewis Donelson and the Rev. James Netters, members of the Memphis City Council in 1968, and attorneys Frierson Graves, Mike Cody and Charles Newman, who were involved in the federal court action.

The forum also will feature:

10:45 a.m. to 12:15 a.m.: Panel discussion of how the Memphis media covered the sanitation workers' strike of 1968.

12:15 p.m. to 1:15 p.m.: Luncheon and speech by Hank Klibanoff, managing editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and co-author of "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation."

1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.: "The Role of the Media in the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case" featuring Stuart Taylor, Newsweek contributing editor and National Journal columnist, who co-authored a recent study of the controversial legal case.


The city of Memphis went to federal court on April 3, 1968, to attempt to stop the march that was to rally supporters of striking sanitation workers who had been off the job since February. It was the same day King arrived in the city and gave what was his last speech at Mason Temple.

Key to the city's argument was a March 28 march through Downtown Memphis of which King was part. It ended in violence and criticism of King's tactics.

At the time, King remained the nation's leading advocate of non-violent protest to end discrimination, bring about racial and economic equality as well as bring an end to the war in Vietnam. His tactics were being criticized not only by political opponents, but by some allies in the civil rights movement.

The violent end to the Memphis march was a significant challenge to the viability of his non-violent approach as King prepared to lead a "Poor People's March" on Washington.

Attorney Lucian Pera, a chief organizer of the day-long examination of media coverage of legal and civil rights issues, said the court action that continued until just an hour or so before King's assassination is an overlooked part of one of the most significant events of the 20th century.

"One of the things even people who have a little perspective on the '68 strike don't remember is the legal aspect of it - that there actually had to be an effort made to get the right for Dr. King to march," Pera said. "The city went to federal court to stop him.

"My hope is that we all learn a little something. We've still got some of these people who were there and involved."

A state of emergency

Through the city's attorneys, Mayor Henry Loeb sought and got a temporary restraining order from then-U.S. District Court Judge Bailey Brown to block the April 5 march. The city's legal motion argued it was "calculated to lead to great racial agitation and hatred and will disrupt the peace and well-being of the entire community, both white and negro."

Loeb put the city under curfew in
the wake of the violence from the earlier march and a state of emergency was declared.

The city included various anonymous fliers it claimed showed a potential for violence. They include a diagram of how to make a firebomb, a hand-drawn diagram of a clenched fist beneath the phrase "Black Power" and appeals to continue a boycott of Downtown businesses.

The Memphis attorneys, including Cody and Newman, who represented King, went to court April 4 with a plan to use guidelines for the conduct of the march that were similar to measures taken during King's 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

They also argued a ban on the march would violate fundamental rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Brown saw the attorneys in his chambers after ending the hearing. He told them he would issue a written ruling the next morning - April 5 - and that it would lift a ban on the march but would impose the guidelines King had agreed to.

King was killed that evening.

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