At 6.01 pm on Thursday April 4th, 1968 a single rifle shot rang out and severely wounded Martin Luther King Jr. as he stood on a balcony outside his motel room. He was pronounced dead an hour later, but the controversy surrounding his death lives on, as does his legacy as one of the world’s greatest civil rights leaders.
Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist Minister from Atlanta, Georgia was born on January 15th, 1929 and became one of the most renowned civil rights leaders the world has ever known. From the 1950s, King crusaded for equal rights for black people, and became famous following the Alabama Montgomery Bus Boycott protest in 1955. He is particularly remembered for the 1963 civil rights March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington DC, which took place on August 28, where in front of approximately 250,000 people he gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech. King was an advocate of non-violence and peaceful protest, much like his idol, Mahatma Gandhi. In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
The Martin Luther King Jr Assassination: Previous Assassination Attempts
King had survived several attempts on his life previously. In 1956 his home had been bombed and in 1958, a mentally ill woman named Izola Curry stabbed King in the chest with a letter opener, while he was signing books in a store in Harlem in New York City. On April 3rd 1968 his plane to Memphis was delayed because of a bomb threat and so King arrived in Memphis later than planned. After his death it transpired that the FBI had a file of death threats against King that they had never shared with him.
Several times King mentioned that he believed that he would die before his time. He taught however that murder would not stop the struggle for equal rights. After the 1963 JFK assassination, he allegedly told his wife Coretta: “This is what is going to happen to me also.”
Early in April, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was heading into Memphis in order to address a march by sanitation workers who were striking against poor pay and working conditions. On April 3rd, the eve of his death, he addressed these workers and gave the now infamous ‘Mountaintops’ speech. He said:
“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.”
Twenty-four hours later, he would be dead.
The Martin Luther King Jr Assassination: His Assassination
King and his entourage were staying at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, which was a rather dull and down at heel affair, but a favourite of King’s all the same. This time, as always, he was in room 306. He was getting ready to go out for dinner with the Memphis Minister Billy Kyles, and his friend Ralph Abernathy. King was running late. Some of the entourage went down into the parking lot below to wait, and a short time later King and Kyles left the room. Abernathy was still inside putting on some cologne.
As King walked onto the balcony he bent over to talk to the men in the parking lot below. The Reverend Jesse James was among them. One of the men suggested King fetch his overcoat as the night was turning cooler, and King affirmed, ‘OK’. He turned back towards his room as Kyles continued down the stairs to the parking lot.
The assembled entourage described a noise like a car back firing, but Abernathy, still inside, recognised it for what it was and ran outside onto the balcony. King was lying in a pool of blood on the concrete balcony; a large gaping wound in his right jaw. Abernathy cradled his head but King was barely alive. Jesse Jackson described how King ‘had just bent over. I reckon if he had been standing up, he would not have been hit in the face.’
A single 30 calibre rifle bullet had struck King, entering his right cheek, travelling through his neck, severing the spinal cord and shattering a number of vertebrae. The bullet lodged in the shoulder blade and was recovered from there during a post mortem.
King was rushed to St. Joseph’s hospital nearby where doctors tried valiantly to save his life, but too much damage had been done, and it was too late. Martin Luther King Jr. was pronounced dead at 7.05 pm on April 4th, 1968. He was just 39 years old.
The Martin Luther King Jr Assassination: The Assassin
Initially the police were looking for a well-dressed white man in a blue car who had supposedly dropped an automatic rifle as he ran from the scene, but as officers moved into the area they soon discovered evidence that put James Earl Ray at the centre of their investigation.
The official account of the assassination, postulates that Ray rented a room in Bessie Brewer’s boarding house, across the road from the Lorraine Motel. He bought a pair of binoculars, watched TV, listened to the radio and read newspapers about King’s visit to Memphis. He sat in the communal bathroom of Brewer’s house and watched the balcony, waiting for King to exit his room. After he fired the shot that killed King, he bundled the rifle, the radio, binoculars and the newspaper into a box, covered it in a green blanket and rushed outside where he dumped the whole thing and made off in his white mustang.
Fingerprints on the rifle and the binoculars were subsequently linked to James Earl Ray, who was a petty crook, with previous form. It was found that the rifle had been purchased by a Harvey Lowmeyer, which was known to be one of James Earl Ray’s aliases.
An international manhunt ensued, and Ray was eventually captured at London Heathrow on his way to Rhodesia.
Trial and conviction
Ray was convinced by his lawyer that he should plead guilty to the assassination, in order to escape the death penalty. He did so at a mini trial and was convicted in 1969 and sentenced to 99 years. However, within three days he retracted his statement and demanded a new trial. He wrote to the judge for his case, Judge W. Preston Battle of Shelby County Criminal Court, several times.
Ray never received another trial and died in prison in 1998.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s family were never convinced that Ray was acting alone and believed there had been a good deal of governmental interference. In 1999 a jury decided that King had been the victim of a murder conspiracy. However, just seven months later in June 2000, the Department for Justice decided there was no reliable evidence of a conspiracy. The FBI files outlining the death threats against King have never been made public, or shared in any investigation into King’s death. The only large scale investigation into the assassination was carried out by House Select Committee on Assassinations which noted the ‘likelihood’ of a conspiracy.
Conspiracy theorists point to a number of unexplained issues to do with King’s death. It is known, for example, that there was a $100,000 bounty being offered for a hit against King by the White Knights of Mississippi but this has never been properly investigated.
Judge W. Preston Battle, the man at the centre of James Earl Ray’s conviction, was found dead three weeks after Ray’s conviction, purportedly of a heart attack. The letters from Ray begging for a retrial were found underneath his slumped body.
There is no reason to think that James Earl Ray was a supreme marksman and yet he was able to kill King with a single head shot. It is also unclear whether the bullet came from the bathroom of Bessie Brewer’s Boarding House, or from the ground below.
Finally, it is difficult to understand James Earl Ray’s motive for assassinating King. He evaded capture for a long time, so he wasn’t after notoriety. He was a petty criminal, not a murderer, and while it is easy to label him as a racist, there is very little anecdotal evidence of any overt racial hatred.
Martin Luther King Jr Assassination: Legacy
Fortunately, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. lives on. Initially his death sparked a great deal of unrest and upheaval across the United States, prompting violent disturbance and rioting. This was exacerbated by the assassination of Robert Kennedy later the same year. However, King would have been opposed to such violence, and is best remembered in his own words taken from his ‘Drum Major’ speech and used in his eulogy.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.
If you’d like to know more about his life prior to the Martin Luther King Jr Assassination then click here to be taken to his biography.
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