TIME MACHINE: ASSASSINATION OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (1929-1968)
April 4th marked the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Civil Rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was a clergyman, a prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who became known for his advancement of civil rights by using civil disobedience.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929; Dr. King was the son of Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. Both he and his father’s legal birth names was Michael King. However, his father changed their names after a 1934 trip to Gernamny to attend the Fifth Baptist World Alliance Congress in Berlin. During this trip, King Sr. decided that he and his son would be called Martin Luther in honor of the German reformer, Martin Luther. Dr. King Jr. graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 with a B.A. degree in sociology. He then enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, earning a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951. He married Coretta Scot in 1953 and both became the parents of four children. In 1954, King became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Dr. King’s reputation as a Civil Rights activist came to the fore in 1955 over the case involving Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger aboard a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Dr. King led a 385 days boycott of the city’s transportation system in protest against Parks’ arrest and the Jim Crow Laws that demanded she sit in the back of the bus. The Montgomery Bus Boycott brought national attention to King and his civil rights activities. Over the next twelve-to-thirteen years, he led other movements that protested against U.S. society’s treatment of African-Americans and other oppressed groups. He led the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom in August 1963 and gave the famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and openly opposed the Vietnam War from 1965 to his death.
In early 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to support the city’s African-American sanitation workers who had staged a walkout in protest against lower wages than white workers and longer hours. On April 3, 1968, King returned to Memphis On April 3, King returned to Memphis to address a gathering at the Mason Temple (World Headquarters of the Church of God in Christ). His airline flight to Memphis had been delayed by a bomb threat against his plane. King and his entourage, which included the Reverend Jesse Jackson, booked into Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. On that day, King delivered the last speech of his life, while a thunderstorm raged outside the Mason Temple. The address is now known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”Address. Here are some of the words of his last speech:
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats… or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. [applause] 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! [applause] 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!”
On Thursday, April 4, 1968; King was standing on the Lorraine Motel’s second floor balcony, when a single .30 bullet fired from a Remington 760 Gamemaster struck King. He fell violently backwards onto the balcony unconscious. Shortly after the shot was fired, witnesses saw James Earl Ray fleeing from a rooming house across the street from the Lorraine Motel where he was renting a room. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where doctors opened his chest and performed manual heart massage. He never regained consciousness and they pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. He was 39 years old.
Authorities found a package that included a rifle and binoculars with Ray’s fingerprints on them. A worldwide manhunt began for Ray and British authorities arrested him two months later at London’s Heathrow Airport. Ray was quickly extradited back to Tennessee and charged with King’s murder. He confessed to the assassination on March 10, 1969. However, he later recanted this confession three days later. He was sentenced to a 99-year sentence. After an attempt to break from prison in 1977, Ray spent the rest of his life trying to withdraw his guilty plea. He died in prison on April 23, 1998, at the age of 70.
Despite pleas from other civil rights activists, King’s assassination led to a series of riots in more than 100 U.S. cities. The city of Memphis quickly settled the strike on favorable terms to the sanitation workers. A crowd of 300,000 attended King’s funeral in Atlanta, Georgia. The King family and others believe that the assassination was carried out by a conspiracy involving the US government, and that James Earl Ray was a scapegoat. This conclusion was affirmed by a jury in a 1999 civil trial.