The Death of Martin Luther King
The civil rights leader was shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4th, 1968.
In 1964 King won the Nobel Peace prize and as the decade drew on he widened his concerns to include the problem of poverty, among whites as well as blacks, and opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1967 he announced the founding of the Poor People’s Campaign to press the federal government into more effective action against poverty. In an essay not published until long after his death he maintained that the civil rights movement was compelling America ‘to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism and materialism’. Meanwhile black militants, angered by what they considered slow progress, were turning away from him and his principle of non-violence.
King and some of his friends spent that night at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and at about six the following evening he was standing on the balcony outside his second-floor room with a friend called Billy Kyles, waiting to go out to eat. Kyles turned to go downstairs where a limousine was waiting when there was a bang like a car back-firing. It was a rifle shot, apparently fired from the window of a rooming house across the street, and King fell to the floor of the balcony, mortally wounded. Another friend, Ralph Abernathy, who was in the motel room, rushed out onto the balcony, saw King lying there with a gaping wound in the head and said, ‘Martin, Martin, this is Ralph. Do you hear me? This is Ralph.’ King’s lips moved, but he was unable to speak. An ambulance was summoned, but King died before it arrived. He was thirty-nine years old.
Mahalia Jackson sang King’s favourite hymn, ‘Take my hand, precious Lord’, at his funeral in Atlanta, Georgia. Meanwhile, riots had exploded in Washington DC and other cities at the news of the assassination as blacks went on the rampage, burning and looting. It took thousands of troops to restore order and King himself would have been deeply saddened. Conspiracy theories about the murder have flourished ever since, but at the time the killer was identified as a white minor criminal from Tennessee named James Earl Ray. He ran away to England, but was arrested in London and extradited back to Memphis where, tried in 1969, he pleaded guilty to the murder and was given a ninety-nine year prison sentence. He later protested his innocence, but few believed him and he died in prison at the age of seventy in 1998.