The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place. From left are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King, and Ralph Abernathy. The 39-year-old Nobel Laureate was the proponent of non-violence in the 1960’s American civil rights movement. King is honored with a national U.S. holiday celebrated in January. (AP Photo)
The assassination of civil rights leader and clergyman Martin Luther King, Jr. rocked the nation, just as the charismatic and focused activist was rising to heights unknown.
Promoting a message of nonviolence in the face of unrelenting racism and opposition, King unflinchingly took on the responsibility of leading the nation into a new paradigm. Just a day before the tragic death of King, he delivered one of the most rousing speeches of his career. Some say King foretold his fortune that day; others were convinced he was murdered as part of a government plot to silence him.
King was in Memphis, Tenn., where he joined a group of Black sanitation workers who were striking for fair compensation and other rights. On the night of April 3, 1968, he visited the Mason Temple to address workers about the strike. The next day, King and his close ally, Ralph David Abernathy, were rooming at the Lorraine Motel. According to biographer Taylor Branch, King spoke his final words to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to play at an event the men were attending that evening.
At 6:01 p.m., a single .30 caliber bullet hit and struck King as he stood on the motel’s balcony. Witnesses saw accused gunman James Earl Ray fleeing the scene. Abernathy heard the shot from inside the room, and rushed to his friend’s aid. Andrew Young was also present, and feared that the leader was dead. After being rushed to a nearby hospital, King was announced dead at 7:05 p.m. after several attempts to revive him.
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Although many leaders and activists, including those from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), wanted to continue the nonviolent protest in the fallen leader’s honor, others thought differently. Militant leaders such as Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Toure) and others were forceful in voicing their emotions. Riots began to erupt in cities with large African-American populations such as Washington, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, and Kansas City.
The King Speech That Is Never Talked About
James Earl Ray was the target of a worldwide manhunt, and was captured at London’s Heathrow Airport two months after firing the shot. The King family and other leaders, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, have long alleged that Ray was simply a scapegoat and that the government carried out the vicious murder of the leader. A civil court case in 1999 affirmed some of those findings and as recent as 2004, Jackson went on record saying that the King assassination was plotted.
The death of King still stings in the hearts of those close to the civil rights icon and those who never knew him. Many leaders since his passing have attempted to follow his mighty footsteps, but none have been nearly as effective or galvanizing. Leaving behind a rich history of devoted activism to bring fairness for all and preaching a message of acceptance, King‘s memory is supplanted by those who continue to strive for equality.