April 4, 2018 marks the 50-year anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Just after 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was fatally shot while standing on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. While there are many conspiracy theories, rumors and unanswered questions surrounding the assassination of Dr. King, the man convicted with killing him was 40-year-old lifelong criminal James Earl Ray, who would later enter a guilty plea in order to avoid a jury trial and the potential of a death sentence.
Dr. King was only 39 years old when he died. He left behind a wife and children. During those 39 short years, Dr. King changed the world, and his impact is still felt today. Dr. King was an African-American civil rights leader who fought for social change through peaceful protests and rational dialogue. He was unafraid of confrontation and unflinchingly met with his adversaries; adversaries who did indeed resort to intimidation, threats and actual violence, from fire hoses to bombings to guns.
Tragically, Dr. King was taken from the world far too soon by a man driven by rage, prejudice and fear. Of course, Dr. King left the world far too soon, and if he had been allowed to live, it is almost unfathomable what he might have accomplished. However, what Dr. King did accomplish during his 39 short years is almost incomprehensible. Dr. King changed the world.
Here is what you need to know about the events that occurred on April 4, 1968.
1. Dr. King Was In Tennessee To Support a Sanitation Workers’ Strike
Prior to his death, one of the issues that Dr. King primarily focused in on was economic equality in America. Dr. King observed the greatest economic disparity primarily, but certainly not exclusively among African-Americans and other minorities. Notably, Dr. King rallied the people in Selma, Alabama, in the face of face of fierce opposition. Now, in Memphis, it was time to do the same.
Dr. King organized what was known as the Poor People’s Campaign to draw attention to the great economic disparity, and the quality of life and standards of living that the majority of impoverished Americans were subjected to. Civil rights activists of all races joined Dr. King in a march on Washington to support the Poor People’s Campaign, and to give a voice to the impoverished Americans struggling so desperately to get by.
Toward the end of March of 1968, Dr. King and the other activists marching in support of the Poor People’s Campaign traveled to Memphis, where there was a group of African-American sanitation workers who were striking to protest unfair treatment, low wages, neglect and abuse, and the indifference of the City of Memphis. There was a long history of poor treatment of African-American sanitation workers in Memphis, but things came to a head on February 1, 1968 when two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed by a malfunctioning truck that was in utter disrepair.
The city offered little to no response to the deaths of Cole and Walker. Approximately two weeks later, 1300 African American employees of the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike. They demanded that their union be officially recognized, better pay, and above all, improved safety standards. Dr. King and the Poor People’s Campaign traveled to Memphis to support the striking workers’ cause, to show solidarity and to offer words of encouragement, and a display of nonviolent strength in numbers.
2. The Day Before Dr. King Was Assassinated, He Delivered His Final Sermon & Talked About Seeing The Promised Land
Dr. King delivered his final sermon at the Mason Temple, the World Headquarters of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis. The church was full and the air was warm. Ladies fanned themselves as they listened to Dr. King, who appeared tired, but his voice was strong. Those who were in attendance that evening described the mood as somber and serious.
During his sermon, Dr. King described a conversation he imagined having with the Almighty. He envisioned the end of his days and passing through Egypt and the Red Sea. He described crossing through the wilderness and, prophetically, seeing the Promised Land. However, he did not stop there.
Dr. King described traveling through ancient Greece and saw the great philosophers. The Roman Empire. The Reformation. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The New Deal.
Chillingly prophetic and tragic, Dr. King then said this. “But I wouldn’t stop there. I would turn to the Almighty and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.'”
It was clear that Dr. King’s own mortality was weighing heavily on him, as death had been chasing him for quite some time. His trip to Memphis had been delayed by a bomb threat. He received disturbing phone calls in the middle of the night. That said, Dr. King stated that he was happy to be alive, albeit weary.
3. Dr. King Was Assassinated On April 3, 1968; Riots Broke Out In Major Cities Following Dr. King’s Death
On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was staying in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, where he frequently stayed when he was in the area; specifically in room 306. Dr. King was good friends with the other of the motel and his wife.
Dr. King had gone outside onto the balcony outside his room at approximately 6:00 p.m. when he was shot. The bullet entered the right side of his face, shattering his jaw, fracturing several vertebrae, hitting his spinal cord and severing his jugular vein. Eventually, the bullet came to rest in his shoulder. Dr. King was knocked backwards onto the balcony, immediately losing consciousness.
The owner of the motel and another friend of Dr. King’s heard the blast from inside the motel, and immediately rushed outside to the balcony. It was initially thought that Dr. King was dead, but he had a faint pulse. He was rushed to nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital, where physicians performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Dr. King never regained consciousness and was declared dead at 7:05 p.m.
News of Dr. King’s assassination spread quickly. Some people were too heartbroken to believe it. Others were angry. This was not helped by the fact that there was some degree of satisfaction expressed by those who opposed civil rights and saw Dr. King as an agitator and an adversary. As a result, riots broke out throughout the country. The National Guard was deployed, which seemed to only cause the violence in the streets to escalate further. Eventually, the riots died down; not because of the efforts of the police or the military, but because of other activists who reasoned with the crowds and reminded them of Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence. It was out of respect for Dr. King that the fires died down and the unrest stopped, and people were left with nothing but their broken hearts; lost without their leader and symbol of hope. Of course, other activists stepped in and led the way, starting with Coretta Scott King, who bravely continued fighting for civil rights for the rest of her life, living as a great example.
4. James Earl Ray Was a Longtime Criminal Who Had Been Tracking Dr. King
James Earl Ray was a confirmed racist who made it his mission in life to assassinate Dr. King.
Ray was born in Alton, Illinois, on March 10, 1928. He was considered to be a ne’er do well and a small-time criminal. By the 1960s, Ray was a full fledged white supremacist. Ray began plotting the assassination of Dr. King in early 1968.
Several witnesses observed a man, later believed to be James Earl Ray, fleeing from a rooming house across the street from the motel, where Ray had been renting a room. Police searched the room and the surrounding area. They discovered a rifle and binoculars, both of which were marked with Ray’s fingerprints. It was later determined that the rifle had been purchased by Ray using an alias. A massive manhunt went underway. Two months later, Ray was arrested at Heathrow Airport in London.
Ray initially confessed to assassinating Dr. King on March 10, 1969, which happened to be his 41st birthday. Ray entered a guilty plea before a judge in order to avoid a jury trial and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He would recant his confession a mere three days later, stating that he only plead guilty to avoid the possibility of the death sentence.
Three days later, he recanted his confession. Ray had entered a guilty plea on the advice of his attorney, Percy Foreman, an effort to avoid the sentence of death. The method of execution used in Tennessee at the time was electrocution. Ray began to assert that he did not personally shoot Dr. King. He also claimed that Governor George Wallace would be elected President soon, and that he would show Ray great leniency. His efforts to withdraw his guilty plea would prove to be unsuccessful, and Ray would eventually die in prison as a result of complications of Hepatitis C.
5. The Political & Social Aftermath Was Extremely Polarized
On April 8 1968, Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, together with the couple’s four small children, bravely led a crowd estimated at 40,000 in a silent march through Memphis to honor Dr. King and support the cause of the city’s African-American striking sanitation workers.
Coretta Scott King bravely fought through her grief, standing up for what she believed in. Ms. King had been inundated with people sending their condolences and kind words. She remarked that the most touching message she received was a telegram from the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald.
A funeral service was held for Dr. King in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. As with several other services to honor Dr. King, it was nationally televised. The funeral procession that transported Dr. King’s body stretched through the streets for over 3.5 miles, and was followed by more than 100,000 mourners.
The majority of politicians who were asked to comment on the death of Dr. King made respectful comments on the senselessness of the tragedy. However, this was not the case for everyone. Governor Lester Maddox of Georgia called King “an enemy of our country” and promised to “personally raise” the state capitol flag back from half-staff.
Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina wrote: “We are now witnessing the whirlwind sowed years ago when some preachers and teachers began telling people that each man could be his own judge in his own case.”
Even future President and then-California Governor Ronald Reagan described Dr. King’s assassination as “a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order and people started choosing which laws they’d break”.
On April 9, 1968, a crowd of 300,000 mourners attended Dr. King’s funeral. At Coretta Scott King’s request, King’s last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church was played at the funeral. In his last sermon, Dr. King reminded all to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and love and serve humanity.
Footage of Dr. King’s most iconic speech, known as “I Have a Dream” is shown here: