Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Assassinated
At 6:01 p.m. the evening of April 4, 1968, the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down by an assassin while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Though rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital where doctors opened his chest and massaged his heart in a desperate attempt to save his life, Dr. King was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. He was 39 years old. A stunned nation lost its leading proponent of nonviolence, the civil rights movement lost its most visible leader, and many Americans deeply mourned.
A lone gunman, James Earl Ray, was arrested on June 10, 1968, at London’s Heathrow Airport, pled guilty to King’s murder on March 10, 1969, and spent the rest of his life in jail. He later claimed he actually was not guilty of the crime, but nonetheless he died in prison on April 23, 1998.
Dr. King had come to Memphis to lead a protest march supporting the city’s striking garbage workers, almost all of whom were black. The plane carrying him to Memphis on April 3 received a bomb threat, and that night he gave what turned out to be the last speech of his life, sounding eerily as though he had already transcended his own death: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now…I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
This copyrighted article about Dr. King’s assassination was published by the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) on the front page of its April 5, 1968, issue:
Shot on Memphis Motel Balcony
Assassin’s Bullet Kills Dr. King
Memphis, Tenn. (AP)—Nobel Laureate Martin Luther King Jr., father of nonviolence in the American civil rights movement, was killed by an assassin’s bullet Thursday night.
King, 39, was hit in the neck by a bullet as he stood on the balcony of a motel here. He died less than an hour later in St. Joseph Hospital.
Gov. Buford Ellington immediately ordered 4,000 National Guard troops back into the city. A curfew, which was clamped on Memphis after a King-led march turned into a riot a week ago, was re-imposed.
Police said incidents of violence, including several fire bombings, were reported following King’s death.
The 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner was standing on the balcony of his motel here, where he had come to lead protests in behalf of the city’s 1,300 striking garbage workers, most of them Negroes, when he was shot.
Two unidentified men who were arrested were released several hours later.
As word of King’s death spread through the stunned city, Negroes in scattered areas also looted stores, stoned police and fire trucks and tossed several fire bombs. Two policemen were injured, mainly by flying glass when a shotgun blast broke their windshield.
Police also said they found a .30-06 rifle on Main Street about one block from the motel, but it was not confirmed whether this was the weapon that killed King.
An aide who was standing nearby said the shot hit King in the neck and lower right part of his face.
“Martin Luther King is dead,” said Asst. Police Chief Henry Lux, the first word of the death.
Asst. Hospital Administrator Paul Hess confirmed later that King died at 7 p.m. of a bullet wound in the neck.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said he and others in the King party were getting ready to go to dinner when the shooting occurred.
“King was on the second-floor balcony of the motel,” Jackson said. “He had just bent over. If he had been standing up, he wouldn’t have been hit in the face.”
King had just told Ben Branch: “My man, be sure to sing ‘Blessed Lord’ tonight and sing it well.”
A shot then rang out, Jackson said.
Jackson said the only sound King uttered after that was: “Oh!”
“It knocked him down,” he said. “When I turned around, I saw police coming from everywhere. They said “Behind you.’ The police were coming from where the shot came.”
Branch, another member of the King party, said, “The bullet exploded in his face. It knocked him off his feet.”
Solomon Jones, King’s chauffeur, said he saw a “man in white clothes” running from the scene.
King had returned to Memphis Wednesday to lead another massive protest march next Monday in support of the garbage strikers. Sympathizers from other parts of the country had announced they would join, and as many as 10,000 or more were expected for the march.
A similar march March 28 of about 6,000 erupted into the first violence in Memphis since the beginning of the civil rights movement. Police and march leaders, alike, blamed the outburst on Negro youths on the fringe of the march.
One 17-year-old Negro youth was killed in the violence after the march, and his funeral Tuesday was attended by several thousand mourners.
Violence erupted again shortly after King was shot. Police reported snipers firing on police and National Guard units and several persons were reported hit by the shots.
Several fire bombings and other acts of vandalism also were reported.
Police director Frank Holloman ordered a curfew back into effect “until further notice” as youths ran rampant, many of them with fire bombs in their hands.
National Guard units, which had been deactivated only Wednesday after five days on duty here, were called back to active duty and rushed to Memphis.
A bomb threat was telephoned to Methodist Hospital and police were rushed to the scene.
Armed guards were immediately posted at St. Joseph Hospital where King died.
Holloman said early investigation indicated the assassin was a white male, who was “50 to 100 yards away in a flophouse.” He said police had no definite leads, but that two persons were in custody.
The city’s garbage collectors, about 98 per cent of them Negroes, struck Feb. 12 for union recognition, payroll deduction of dues and pay increases.
Mayor Henry Loeb has declared the strike was illegal and said repeatedly he would not grant a written contract or the dues checkoff.
The strike, which drew its racial overtones from the large proportion of Negroes among the strikers, quickly took on a civil rights character.
In a speech here, King had said the strike symbolized a new phase of the civil rights movement, “The Negroes’ fight for economic equality.”
A federal district judge issued an injunction against Monday’s planned march, after city officials said they feared it might bring more violence. King’s attorneys argued against the move, and U.S. District Court Judge Bailey Brown took the case under advisement Thursday.
King had told a rally Wednesday night that the march would proceed, regardless of injunctions.
The same night, King had told associates that he was not disturbed about reports that he would be in danger while in Memphis.
Gov. Buford Ellington announced after the slaying that the state was taking necessary steps to prevent disorder.
“For the second time in recent days, I most earnestly ask the people of Memphis and Shelby County to remain calm. I do so again tonight in the face of this most regrettable incident,” the governor said.
“Every possible action is being taken to apprehend the person or persons responsible for committing this act,” Ellington said.
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