Today’s post was written by Steven Booth, Archivist at the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Hoffman Estates, IL
This week cities across the United States commemorated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was killed on April 4, 1968. The day prior to his death, Dr. King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to stand in solidarity with the city’s 1,300 Black sanitation workers who were on strike and to help prepare for another demonstration for wage increases and union recognition. The previous protest held on March 28 had resulted in an violent uprising and the death of Larry Payne, a sixteen-year old African American male, who was shot and killed by Memphis police officer Leslie Dean Jones over a $100 stolen television. Dr. King hoped that the protest scheduled for the following Monday would not be a repeat of the previous one, but in fact peaceful. On the evening of April 3, he delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in front of a packed congregation at the historic Mason Temple Church of God in Christ.
The next day, shortly before 6:00 PM, Dr. King along with Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles departed the Lorraine Motel for dinner at Kyles’ house. While standing on the balcony outside of room 306, Dr. King spoke and laughed with his associates, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr., from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) who were waiting for the trio in the parking lot. During the middle of their conversation Dr. King was struck by a single bullet and immediately fell to the balcony with his foot caught in between the balcony railing. The shot hit the right side of his face and caused life threatening damage. Abernathy, Kyles and the SCLC associates hurried to his aid and phoned 911 and his wife, Coretta Scott King, while others who witnessed the shooting pointed in the direction of the gunshot. Dr. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead at approximately 7:05 PM. He died at the age of 39.
As television anchors and radio disc jockeys broadcast the news of his assassination, a fury of riots erupted in roughly 125 American cities – including Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York City, Detroit and Pittsburgh – over the course of the week. The rioting resulted in significant property damage; mostly in African American neighborhoods as well as several dozen deaths and thousands of arrests and injuries. In many cities today the effects of the riots can still be felt and seen.
At the request of Coretta Scott King, Senator Robert F. Kennedy provided a plane for her and her family to retrieve Dr. King’s body from Memphis to Atlanta. His casket was later taken to Sisters Chapel on the campus of Spelman College where he laid in state for 48 hours. During which President Lyndon Johnson observed April 7th as a national day of mourning. In honor of her husband, Coretta Scott King led roughly 42,000 people in a silent march for the Memphis sanitation workers on April 8 as previously scheduled. Eight days later under increased pressure from federal officials the city of Memphis settled the strike with recognition of the union and wage increases.
The Dream of King’s – 1968 (NAID 48003)
The following services were held in Atlanta for the beloved hometown hero: the first, a private funeral for the King family, friends, and close associates at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he had served as pastor. Followed by a public service on the campus of Morehouse College, where he attended college and graduated in 1948. His mentor and friend Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, former Morehouse College president, delivered the eulogy.
A memorial service was also held in Memphis at the R.S. Lewis Funeral Home the day after the assassination.
Over the course of several days hundreds of thousands of people journeyed to pay their respects and say their final goodbyes to the slain civil rights leader. Funeral attendees included politicians Robert F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, entertainers Sammy Davis Jr., Eartha Kitt, and Harry Belafonte, and a host of civil rights leaders and clergymen. Dr. King was briefly interred at South-View Cemetery and later reburied in a tomb at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, founded by Coretta Scott King in 1968. In 1991, the Lorraine Motel became a museum and is now a part of the National Civil Rights Museum.
The FBI launched an investigation and later identified James Earl Ray as the alleged assassin of Dr. King, which led to an international manhunt. Ray was extradited from Britain to the United States in July 1968 and less than a year later he entered a guilty plea to forgo a jury trial and potentially the death penalty. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison. In the early 1990s, Ray recanted his plea and claimed he had been framed. With the assistance of the King family and friends, efforts were made to build support for his appeal but the case was never reopened. He died in 1998. Over the course of five decades, several investigations into the assassination of Dr. King have taken place. Some of these records are available for research at the National Archives and are a part of series Classification 44 (Civil Rights) Field Office Case Files Relating to the Investigation of the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968 – 1978 (NAID 28921313) as well as the recent release of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection.