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VOL. 130 | NO. 38 | Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Attorneys Recall Role of Law in Events of 1968

By Bill Dries

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David Caywood still remembers the memorandum of understanding that almost settled the 1968 sanitation workers strike before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Attorney Charles Carpenter, Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey, former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and attorney David Caywood talked about the law, attorneys and the effect of both on Memphis in the 1960s at a Black Law Students Association forum at the University of Memphis law school.

(Ryan Jones)

To Caywood, the attorneys and their work during the more dramatic events of the strike are evidence that the law – and its practice as the basis for “rational arguments” – could have stopped the strike short of its violent climax.

Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey said his legal training gave him skills that he still sees as a way to “challenge and disrupt” society.

Caywood and Bailey were part of the panel discussion “Voices of Civil Rights” at the Cecil C. Humphreys University of Memphis School of Law. The discussion, presented by the Black Law Students Association chapter, was held Feb. 19.

Caywood had drafted a proposed settlement of the strike as an attorney at Burch, Porter and Johnson. He watched the labor dispute rapidly grow into a much larger movement and saw City Hall’s reaction to that movement intensify.

He presented the proposal to Jerry Wurf, international head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing the striking sanitation workers. Much to his surprise, Wurf signed it immediately.

“I felt like the little dog that chased the fire truck down the street and finally caught the fire truck,” Caywood said. “Now what do I do with it?”

He took the settlement to Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb, who adamantly refused to sign it. Loeb didn’t want to allow the workers to have union dues deducted from their city paychecks automatically, something the city did for teachers. Loeb countered that the education association representing those teachers was not a labor union.

“I said, ‘Mr. Loeb, if you don’t sign this thing, something bad could happen,’” Caywood remembered. “He almost physically threw me out of his office. He thought I was threatening him.”

As the strike continued, Bailey was heading a law student organization in Massachusetts. That group sent law students to Memphis to assist in the legal work of the conflict spinning off from the strike.

“Law students were in the center of these movements,” Bailey said. “Lawyers were in the center of these movements.”

But Bailey’s point is that the attorneys weren’t there to “just practice the narrow trade of lawyering.”

“It’s the skills and the strategic wisdom that you gather in that trade that enables you to learn systems,” he told the group of about 100. “And as you learn systems, it gives you a sense of how you can challenge those systems and disrupt them.”

He urged current law students to continue the challenge. He also encouraged more black attorneys to run for elected office.

“We are a minority community,” he said of Memphis. “Not a minority community in numbers, but a minority in power.”

Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who as a school administrator put his career on the line to march during the 1968 strike, also remembered a Memphis that “was not a nice place to live.”

“We were in a struggle, but the struggle did not overwhelm us,” he said. “I knew when I was young that life owed me more.”

The strike quickly became more than a labor dispute.

But for Caywood, the law and its influence could have spawned a different ending for the sanitation workers strike; it could have changed the tone of the discussions, if not the nature of the disagreements.

“It was tragic,” he said. “None of it had to happen.”

For attorney Charles Carpenter, the now historic events of the civil rights movement, including the strike, which he witnessed as a teenager, created a resolve in him to change things. For Carpenter, becoming an attorney was the way to make that happen.

“Laws are enacted to make a difference,” he said. “Without all of the struggle and all of the things that took place – but for the Civil Rights Act, but for some of the other legislation – we would still be wrestling with equal accommodations, equal education and equal opportunity in every respect.”

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