The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel

American Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
American Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Archive Photos/Getty Images

At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was hit by a sniper's bullet. King had been standing on the balcony in front of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, when without warning, he was shot. The .30-caliber rifle bullet entered King's right cheek, traveled through his neck, and finally stopped at his shoulder blade. King was immediately taken to a nearby hospital but was pronounced dead at 7:05 pm.

Violence and controversy followed. In outrage of the murder, many blacks took to the streets across the United States in a massive wave of riots. The FBI investigated the crime, but many believed them partially or fully responsible for the assassination. An escaped convict by the name of James Earl Ray was arrested, but many people including some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s own family, believe he was innocent. What happened that evening?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  

When Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, he began a long tenure as the spokesperson for nonviolent protest in the Civil Rights Movement. As a Baptist minister, he was a moral leader to the community. Plus, he was charismatic and had a powerful way of speaking. He was also a man of vision and determination. He never stopped dreaming of what could be.

Yet he was a man, not a God. He was most often overworked and overtired and he had a fondness for the private company of women.

Though he was the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner, he did not have complete control over the Civil Rights Movement. By 1968, violence had edged its way into the movement. Black Panther Party members carried loaded weapons, riots had erupted across the country, and numerous civil rights organizations had taken up the mantra "Black Power!" Yet Martin Luther King held strong to his beliefs, even as he saw the Civil Rights Movement being torn in two.

Violence is what brought King back to Memphis in April 1968.

Striking Sanitation Workers in Memphis

On February 12, thirteen hundred African-American sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike. Though there had been a long history of grievances, the strike was begun as a response to a January 31 incident in which 22 black sanitation workers were sent home without pay during bad weather while all the white workers remained on the job. When the City of Memphis refused to negotiate with the 1,300 striking workers, King and other civil rights leaders were asked to visit Memphis in support.

On Monday, March 18, King managed to fit in a quick stop in Memphis, where he spoke to over 15,000 who had gathered at Mason Temple. Ten days later, King arrived in Memphis to lead a march in support of the striking workers. Unfortunately, as King led the crowd, a few of the protesters got rowdy and smashed the windows of a storefront. The violence spread and soon countless others had taken up sticks and were breaking windows and looting stores.

Police moved in to disperse the crowd. Some of the marchers threw stones at the police. The police responded with tear gas and nightsticks. At least one of the marchers was shot and killed.King was extremely distressed at the violence that had erupted in his own march and became determined not to let violence prevail.

He scheduled another march in Memphis for April 8.

On April 3, King arrived in Memphis a little later than planned because there had been a bomb threat for his flight before takeoff. That evening, King delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech to a relatively small crowd that had braved the bad weather to hear King speak. King's thoughts were obviously on his mortality, for he discussed the plane threat as well as the time he had been stabbed. He concluded the speech with,

"Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life - longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and 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 so 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."

After the speech, King went back to the Lorraine Motel to rest.

Martin Luther King Stands on the Lorraine Motel Balcony

The Lorraine Motel (now the National Civil Rights Museum) was a relatively drab, two-story motor inn on Mulberry Street in downtown Memphis. Yet it had become a habit of Martin Luther King and his entourage to stay at the Lorraine Motel when they visited Memphis.

On the evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King and his friends were getting dressed to have dinner with Memphis minister Billy Kyles. King was in Room 306 on the second floor and hurried to get dressed since they were, as usual, running a bit late. While putting on his shirt and using Magic Shave Powder to shave, King chatted with Ralph Abernathy about an upcoming event.

Around 5:30 p.m., Kyles had knocked on their door to hurry them along. The three men joked about what was to be served for dinner. King and Abernathy wanted to confirm that they were going to be served "soul food" and not something like filet mignon. About half an hour later, Kyles and King stepped out from the motel room onto the balcony (basically the outside walkway that connected all the motel's second-story rooms). Abernathy had gone to his room to put on some cologne.

Near the car in the parking lot directly below the balcony, waited James Bevel, Chauncey Eskridge (SCLC lawyer), Jesse Jackson, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, and Solomon Jones, Jr. (the driver of the loaned white Cadillac). A few remarks were exchanged between the men waiting below and Kyles and King. Jones remarked that King should get a topcoat since it might get cold later; King replied, "O.K."

Kyles was just a couple steps down the stairs and Abernathy was still inside the motel room when the shot rang out. Some of the men initially thought it a car backfire, but others realized it was a rifle shot. King had fallen to the concrete floor of the balcony with a large, gaping wound covering his right jaw.

Martin Luther King Jr. Shot

Abernathy ran out of his room to see his dear friend fallen, laying in a puddle of blood.

He held King's head saying, "Martin, it's all right. Don't worry. This is Ralph. This is Ralph."*

Kyles had gone into a motel room to call an ambulance while others encircled King. Marrell McCollough, an undercover Memphis police officer, grabbed a towel and tried to stop the flow of blood. Though King was unresponsive, he was still alive - but only barely. Within fifteen minutes of the shot, Martin Luther King arrived at St. Joseph's Hospital on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over his face. He had been hit by a .30-06 caliber rifle bullet that had entered his right jaw, then traveled through his neck, severing his spinal cord, and stopped in his shoulder blade. The doctors tried emergency surgery but the wound was too serious. Martin Luther King, Jr. was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. He was 39 years old.

Who Killed Martin Luther King Jr.?

Despite many conspiracy theories questioning who was responsible for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., most of the evidence points to a single shooter, James Earl Ray. On the morning of April 4, Ray used information from the televised news as well as from a newspaper to discover where King was staying in Memphis. Around 3:30 p.m., Ray, using the name John Willard, rented room 5B in Bessie Brewer's run-down rooming house that was located across the street from the Lorraine Motel.

Ray then visited the York Arms Company a few blocks away and purchased a pair of binoculars for $41.55 in cash. Returning to the rooming house, Ray readied himself in the communal bathroom, peering out the window, waiting for King to emerge from his hotel room. At 6:01 p.m., Ray shot King, mortally wounding him.

Immediately after the shot, Ray quickly placed his rifle, binoculars, radio, and newspaper into a box and covered it with an old, green blanket. Then Ray hurriedly carried the bundle out of the bathroom, down the hall, and down to the first floor. Once outside, Ray dumped his package outside the Canipe Amusement Company and walked swiftly to his car. He then drove away in his white Ford Mustang, just before police arrived. While Ray was driving toward Mississippi, police were starting to put the pieces together. Nearly immediately, the mysterious green bundle was discovered as were several witnesses who had seen someone who they believed to be the new renter of 5B rushing out of the rooming house with the bundle.

By comparing fingerprints found on items in the bundle, including those on the rife and binoculars, with those of known fugitives, the FBI discovered they were looking for James Earl Ray. After a two-month long, international manhunt, Ray was finally captured on June 8 at London's Heathrow Airport. Ray pleaded guilty and was given a 99-year sentence in prison. Ray died in prison in 1998.

* Ralph Abernathy as quoted in Gerald Posner, Killing the Dream (New York: Random House, 1998) 31.

Bibliography

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow, 1986.

Posner, Gerald. Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Random House, 1998.