Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, an event that sent shock waves reverberating around the world. A Baptist minister and founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King had led the civil rights movement since the mid-1950s, using a combination of impassioned speeches and nonviolent protests to fight segregation and achieve significant civil rights advances for African Americans. His assassination led to an outpouring of anger among Black Americans, as well as a period of national mourning that helped speed the way for an equal housing bill that would be the last significant legislative achievement of the civil rights era.
King Assassination: Background
In the last years of his life, Dr. King faced mounting criticism from young African American activists who favored a more confrontational approach to seeking change. These young radicals stuck closer to the ideals of the Black nationalist leader Malcolm X (himself assassinated in 1965), who had condemned King’s advocacy of nonviolence as “criminal” in the face of the continuing repression suffered by African Americans.
As a result of this opposition, King sought to widen his appeal beyond his own race, speaking out publicly against the Vietnam War and working to form a coalition of poor Americans—Black and white alike—to address such issues as poverty and unemployment.
In the spring of 1968, while preparing for a planned march to Washington to lobby Congress on behalf of the poor, King and other SCLC members were called to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a sanitation workers’ strike. On the night of April 3, King gave a speech at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis.
In his speech, King seemed to foreshadow his own untimely passing, or at least to strike a particularly reflective note, ending with these now-historic words: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
In fact, King had already survived an assassination attempt in the shoe section of a Harlem department store on September 20, 1958. The incident only affirmed his belief in non-violence.
Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
At 6:05 p.m. the following day, King was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he and his associates were staying, when a sniper’s bullet struck him in the neck. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead about an hour later, at the age of 39.
Shock and distress over the news of King’s death sparked rioting in more than 100 cities around the country, including burning and looting. Amid a wave of national mourning, President Lyndon B. Johnson urged Americans to “reject the blind violence” that had killed King, whom he called the “apostle of nonviolence.”
He also called on Congress to speedily pass the civil rights legislation then entering the House of Representatives for debate, calling it a fitting legacy to King and his life’s work. On April 11, Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, a major piece of civil rights legislation that prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex. It is considered an important follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Martin Luther King was shot dead while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. News of King’s assassination prompted major outbreaks of racial violence, resulting in more than 40 deaths nationwide and extensive property damage in over 100 American cities. James Earl Ray, a 40-year-old escaped fugitive, later confessed to the crime and was sentenced to a 99-year prison term. During King’s funeral a tape recording was played in which King spoke of how he wanted to be remembered after his death: “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others” (King, “Drum Major Instinct,” 85).
King had arrived in Tennessee on Wednesday, 3 April, to prepare for a march the following Monday on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers. As he prepared to leave the Lorraine Motel for a dinner at the home of Memphis minister Samuel “Billy” Kyles, King stepped out onto the balcony of room 306 to speak with Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) colleagues standing in the parking area below. An assassin fired a single shot that caused severe wounds to the lower right side of his face. SCLC aides rushed to him, and Ralph Abernathy cradled King’s head. Others on the balcony pointed across the street toward the rear of a boarding house on South Main Street where the shot seemed to have originated. An ambulance rushed King to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead at 7:05 P.M.
President Lyndon B. Johnson called for a national day of mourning to be observed on 7 April. In the following days, public libraries, museums, schools, and businesses were closed, and the Academy Awards ceremony and numerous sporting events were postponed. On 8 April King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and other family members joined thousands of participants in a march in Memphis honoring King and supporting the sanitation workers. King’s funeral service was held the following day in Atlanta at Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was attended by many of the nation’s political and civil rights leaders, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Ralph Bunche. Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays delivered the eulogy, predicting that King “would probably say that, if death had to come, I am sure there was no greater cause to die for than fighting to get a just wage for garbage collectors” (Mays, 9 April 1968). Over 100,000 mourners followed two mules pulling King’s coffin through the streets of Atlanta. After another ceremony on the Morehouse campus, King’s body was initially interred at South-View Cemetery. Eventually, it was moved to a crypt next to the Ebenezer Church at the King Center, an institution founded by King’s widow.
Shortly after the assassination, a policeman discovered a bundle containing a 30.06 Remington rifle next door to the boarding house. The largest investigation in Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) history led its agents to an apartment in Atlanta. Fingerprints uncovered in the apartment matched those of James Earl Ray, a fugitive who had escaped from a Missouri prison in April 1967. FBI agents and police in Memphis produced further evidence that Ray had registered on 4 April at the South Main Street roominghouse and that he had taken a second-floor room near a common bathroom with a view of the Lorraine Motel.
The identification of Ray as a suspect led to an international manhunt. On 19 July 1968 Ray was extradited to the United States from Britain to stand trial. In a plea bargain, Tennessee prosecutors agreed in March 1969 to forgo seeking the death penalty when Ray pled guilty to murder charges. The circumstances leading to the plea later became a source of controversy, when Ray recanted his confession soon after being sentenced to a 99-year term in prison.
During the years following King’s assassination, doubts about the adequacy of the case against Ray were fueled by revelations of the extensive surveillance of King by the FBI and other government agencies. Beginning in 1976 the House Select Committee on Assassinations, chaired by Representative Louis Stokes, re-examined the evidence concerning King’s assassination, as well as that of President John F. Kennedy. The committee’s final report suggested that Ray may have had co-conspirators. The report nonetheless concluded that there was no convincing evidence of government complicity in King’s assassination.
After recanting his guilty plea, Ray continued to maintain his innocence, claiming to have been framed by a gun-smuggler he knew as “Raoul.” In 1993 Ray’s lawyer, William F. Pepper, sought to build popular support to reopen Ray’s case by staging a televised mock trial of Ray in which the “jury” found him not guilty. In 1997 members of King’s family publicly supported Ray’s appeal for a new trial, and King’s son Dexter Scott King supported Ray’s claims of innocence during a televised prison encounter. Despite this support Tennessee authorities refused to reopen the case, and Ray died in prison on 23 April 1998.
Even after Ray’s death, conspiracy allegations continued to surface. In 1999, on behalf of King’s widow and children, Pepper won a token civil verdict of wrongful death against Lloyd Jowers, owner of Jim’s Grill, a restaurant across the street from the Lorraine Motel. Although the trial produced considerable testimony that contradicted the original case against Ray, the Justice Department announced in 2000 that its own internal investigation, launched in 1998 at the King family’s request, had failed to find sufficient evidence to warrant a further investigation.