The 45th Anniversary of The Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1968, the United States was bitterly embroiled in civil rights issues as well as being involved in a war in Vietnam that was opposed by many. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American clergyman, a civil rights activist and leader for black people of America.
Exactly 45 years ago, MLK had gone to Memphis, TN because of a garbage collector’s strike stemming from the accidental death of two collectors who had been crushed to death. Black employees were calling for better safety conditions, and Mr. King felt the cause worth helping. He and his fellow clergyman, Ralph David Abernathy was staying in an unpretentious motel called the Lorraine Motel in room 306 on the third level. There was a balcony type of walkway in front of the doors to the rooms, where MLK and his colleagues gathered to talk in the open air.
The evening of April 4, 1968, as Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the balcony area in front of his room; a single shot rang out and dropped him where he stood. He was rushed to nearby St. Joseph’s hospital, where manual heart massage was attempted, but MLK never regained consciousness from the fatal shot and was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.
As the news spread, one of the first to hear was Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy who was campaigning in Indianapolis, IN. His advisers warned of the danger of his speaking out in public with no guarantees of protection, but Robert Kennedy made a decision and wrote his own words for what is now considered one of the most important speeches in American History.
Standing at a podium on the back of a flat back truck, RFK announced the death, to a reaction of much anguish and cries, then spoke of how he understood the immediate reaction of rage and hatred, mentioning the devastating loss of his brother John Fitzgerald Kennedy to assassination five years earlier. He urged the country and especially black people to go beyond the difficult times and unite together as MLK would have wished. He also asked for prayers for the King Family. RFK urged people “to tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of this world.” Although there was rioting in over 100 cities that night, there were none in Indianapolis.
President Lyndon Johnson cancelled a trip immediately to Hawaii where he had been scheduled to meet with Military leaders, and assigned General Ramsey Clark to investigate the tragedy. He also made a personal call to MLK’s widow, Coretta Scott King.
April 7, 1968 was declared a national day of mourning; schools, public buildings and businesses closed. Even the National Academy of Arts and Sciences Oscar awards were cancelled. Two days later, over 300,000 people attended MLK’s funeral, although President Johnson, fearing more problems from the Viet Nam war protesters, sent Hubert Humphrey in his place.
Coretta King allowed Martin Luther King, Jr. to give his own eulogy by playing a taped sermon that he had made previously at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Now, called the “drum major sermon,” he even remarked that after his death he would want to be known for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, being on the right side of the war question and for loving and serving humanity.
Who was responsible for MLK’s death? A package containing a rifle and binoculars was mysteriously found near the site. Along with witness testimony of a man, later identified and captured in London as James Earl Ray, fleeing the scene, an arrest was made two months later.
James Earl Ray took a guilty plea to avoid trial and the death sentence, and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. However, as other facts unfolded, including conspiracy theories, Ray spent the rest of his life in prison trying to obtain the trial he never had and claimed he was innocent. He died in 1998. This belief is shared by the King family today, that Ray was only a scapegoat and innocent of pulling the trigger.
A public civil trial in 1999 was held and the jury of six blacks and six whites found James Earl Ray innocent. Notables such as Jesse Jackson don’t believe that Ray had motive, money or means to have acted alone, if at all. A prime reason given if indeed there was a US government and Memphis police conspiracy as some believe, is keeping the Poor People’s Campaign out of Washington DC. MLK was opposed the Vietnam war. Coretta Scott King said that her husband had predicted he would be assassinated one day just like JFK, and called America a “sick society.”