Interview with Charles Newman

By Theodore Nollert 

Charles Newman graduated from Central High School in 1955, from Yale College in 1959 (B.A., Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa), and from Yale Law School in 1963.  He majored in philosophy, and in 1959-1960, between college and law school, he did graduate work in philosophy at the University of Bonn, Germany (the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelm Universitat).


Early in his legal career in Memphis, he was one of the attorneys who represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in successfully lifting an injunction preventing Dr. King from marching in Memphis. Dr. King was assassinated later that same day.


In the 1970s and 1980s, Newman represented the plaintiffs in a landmark case blocking construction of Interstate 40 through Midtown Memphis and Overton Park, and he went on to work for many years on efforts to protect and preserve public lands and create parks and recreational trails, participating in the opposition to the commercial development of Shelby Farms, the creation of the Shelby Farms Conservancy, the Wolf River Conservancy, the Overton Park Conservancy, and the GreenlineTrail, and he is currently working on the creation of the Harahan Bridge Trail across the Mississippi River (a/k/a the Big River Crossing), recreational trails on the Arkansas Levees, a new park on the land between the bridges in Arkansas, and other such projects. 

He and his wife, Kay, endowed a writing program at Rhodes, “Daily Themes,” patterned after a similar program at Yale, focusing on intensive writing.

To quote your own words, “Much of what lawyers do is deal with words.”  How did your own liberal education prepare you for the practice of law?

I can’t imagine better preparation for the practice of law (or – for that matter – any career) than a good liberal arts education. 

A liberal arts education consists largely of learning to read and write, and therefore think, better and better, more and more precisely and well, as well as furnishing our minds with the best of what those who came before us have thought and said.  (There’s been much discussion recently of whether such an education prepares one for financial success.  I’ve often thought that, though it may well do that, its more important value is to prepare us to lead a meaningful and satisfying life, regardless of money.)

When I finished college I thought I’d learned to read, write, and think about as well as I ever would, but if you continue to take the job seriously, you see it’s a lifetime project. 

Law school and the practice of law consist largely of a more specialized version of the same thing, learning to read and write certain kinds of texts better and better: how to read every possible meaning that can be derived from a text, and how to write a text in a way that permits of only one interpretation.  

Tell us more about the origin of your involvement with Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, and why you remained involved in protecting conserved land.

In November, 1969, I received a call from a Washington lawyer, a college and law school classmate, one of whose partners had been asked to be involved in the opposition to the construction of Interstate 40 through Midtown Memphis and Overton Park.  The case had originally been filed in the District of Columbia, but was being transferred to Memphis, and they needed a Memphis lawyer.  I agreed to get involved and, after a long struggle, lasting more than a decade, we prevailed and the proposed road was withdrawn from the Interstate system.  

This led to my involvement in many other environmental, conservation and preservation matters, usually representing citizens’ groups, including other highway cases, suits to prevent the channelization of rivers by the Corps of Engineers, a decades long effort to protect Shelby Farms from commercial development, the creation of the Shelby Farms Conservancy, the Wolf River Conservancy, the Overton Park Conservancy, and the Greenline Trail, the Harahan Bridge Trail, recreational trails on the Arkansas Levees, a new park on the land between the bridges in Arkansas, and other such projects.

The rest of my practice has been quite diverse, representing small colleges and schools, newspapers, television stations, hospitals, conservation and preservation groups, and numerous other small companies and individuals.   

Memphis played a key role in the Civil Rights movement, and you once served as counsel to Dr. King.

In 1968, I had the extraordinary experience of being one of the lawyers representing Martin Luther King in his last days, opposing a Federal court injunction against a march he intended to lead on behalf of Memphis sanitation workers. 

On the afternoon of April 3, 1968, several lawyers and I, led by my senior partner Lucius Burch, were asked to come and meet with King in his little bedroom at the Lorraine Motel, in anticipation of a Federal Court hearing scheduled for the next day.   I sat on his bed and he sat in a chair inches away. 

Though we of course had no idea he would be assassinated the next day, it was an extraordinary experience being in his presence.  I sensed about him an almost visible and tangible aura of energy, wisdom, and strength of a sort I’ve not encountered before or since.  Some of this, maybe most of it, had more to do with my own experience, beliefs, and youthful idealism than it did with any objective reality.  But I think some of it was very real, and grew out of the power of his convictions, their deep roots in the religious and philosophical tradition from which he came, the rightness of his cause, the urgency and crucial importance of the issues he was addressing. 

I viewed him then, and I view him now, as a singular, possibly irreplaceable person, one of the few who may have changed the course of our history.  Had he not existed then, it’s by no means clear another would have emerged to take his place.

Late on the afternoon of the next day, after an all-day hearing in Federal court, the judge announced he would allow King’s march, and we headed back to our office.  Moments later we heard the sirens and were told King had been shot. 

It was not a complex or difficult case.  The facts and law were very much on our side and the outcome was never much in doubt.  My role, as a very young lawyer, was a minor one.  But like many others who had grown up in the South, I had invested in King much of my hope for the future, and being with him at that time was a moving experience.

Theodore Nollert is a senior at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, studying English Literature. Rhodes is home to the Gamma of Tennessee Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.