Assassination of Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Part 1

About the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., history and account of the night of his murder.


The Victim: MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., black Baptist minister from Alabama who spearheaded the civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his death in 1968. King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Council and gained recognition as an advocate of the Gandhian principle of nonviolent resistance. Through his efforts, national attention was focused on the plight of blacks, which resulted in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 1964 King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At the time of his assassination at age 39, he was planning a Poor People's March to Washington.

The Date: Apr. 4, 1968.

The Event: Beginning in February, 1968, Memphis, Tenn., became the scene of a controversial strike by the city's 1,300 sanitation personnel. As the result of a large-scale disturbance, instigated in part by undercover law-enforcement infiltrators, one youth was killed and 238 persons were arrested. Dr. Martin Luther King came to Memphis in April to help the strike proceed in a more peaceful manner.

On Apr. 3, King checked into the Lorraine Motel, Room 306. That evening he was to speak at the Mason Street Temple. Employees of the Lorraine recalled that a white man, made up to appear black, had come to check on King's reservation early that day. The man was not connected in any way with the King party. The undue interest shown by this man has yet to be fully explained.

Late in the afternoon, Memphis was struck by strong winds and rain. King felt that his speech should be given by Ralph Abernathy, his associate. If the weather kept the crowds away, reporters would have an excellent opportunity to make journalistic stabs at King's speaking to an empty house. When Abernathy arrived at the Mason Street Temple, however, over 2,000 people greeted him and strong support was obvious. The group wanted to hear Martin Luther King. King complied with a speech that contained a passage bordering on prophecy: "We've got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. I won't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.... But I'm not concerned about that now...."

King spent Apr. 4 in his motel room in Memphis. As evening approached, he and his associates were preparing for a dinner engagement. King stepped out onto the balcony overlooking a parking lot and started a short conversation with Rev. Jesse Jackson, who, with their mutual friend, musician Ben Branch, was standing in the lot.

"You remember Ben?" Jackson asked.

"Oh, yeah. He's my man. Be sure to play 'Precious Lord' and play it real pretty," King replied.

Solomon Jones, King's chauffeur, called to him that it was chilly and advised him to wear his topcoat. King agreed. As he straightened up to leave, a bullet struck him in the right side of the jaw, entered his neck, and severed his spinal cord. King was thrown violently backward, and his necktie was ripped completely off his shirt. He was bleeding profusely as shocked associates and staff members ran to his aid.

Within 15 minutes, an ambulance arrived and carried the stricken leader to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:05 P.M.; an hour and four minutes after the shooting.

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