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