When Martin Luther King died at Memphis' Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, America changed forever. This is the full story of the tragedy that shook a nation.
When civil rights leader and American icon Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968 at age 39, it sent shockwaves around the world.
King had just stepped out onto the motel's second-floor balcony at 6:01 p.m. with associates like Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson on hand when the perpetrator pulled the trigger. The fatal bullet struck King with enough force to rip his necktie from his body.
"I remember Ralph Abernathy coming out and saying, 'Get back my friend, my friend, don't leave us now,'" Jesse Jackson later recalled, "but Dr King was dead on impact."
"I don't even think he heard the shot," said colleague Andrew Young. "I don't think he felt anything."
As King's associates desperately pointed toward the suspected location of the shooter and the authorities rushed to the scene, rescue workers transported King's body to St. Joseph's hospital. But he never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead there at 7:05 p.m.
The aftermath of Martin Luther King's death saw James Earl Ray arrested for the crime, the civil rights movement thrown into chaos, and the nation forced to deal with untold pain and anger. Riots erupted in more than 100 cities across the country as some 15,000 people were arrested in what's widely been called the greatest period of civil unrest in U.S. history since the Civil War.
Meanwhile, conspiracy theories regarding his death persist to this day. Theorists say that, perhaps because of King's increasingly anti-Vietnam and anti-establishment rhetoric in his final years, the U.S. government may have wanted to see him gone.
Though Ray initially confessed to the crime, he later recanted, in part, and claimed there was a larger plot that involved numerous others besides him. This and subsequent revelations of FBI efforts to sabotage King only made many more suspicious that the government was involved in some way.
Documents declassified in subsequent decades indeed show that the FBI illegally spied on King and even threatened him as part of their larger COINTELPRO program designed to silence and intimidate anti-establishment figures.
Whether there was a conspiracy or not, Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination was only the beginning. It was the start of both nationwide grieving and a decades-long reassessment of what exactly happened that day, who was responsible, and what the larger ramifications were for the very course of American history.
The Night Before His Death
The day before Martin Luther King died, he arrived in Memphis to prepare for the upcoming march supporting the striking Memphis sanitation workers.
He gave the last speech of his life at the Mason Temple on the night of April 3 as a thunderstorm raged outside. Memphis minister Samuel "Billy" Kyles recalled King would flinch every time the gusts of wind banged against the auditorium's shutters.
Another minister on hand remembered King looking "harried and tired and worn and rushed." King had been under the weather with a sore throat and was severely sleep-deprived that night. In his speech, he said the nation was doomed, lest the government finally helped poor black Americans survive.
He then reminisced about the time a woman stabbed him in 1958, nearly killing him, and reflected on his mortality. He spoke of the death threat that forced his flight from Atlanta that morning to be delayed. He had heard of even more threats once he arrived in Memphis, he said.
Indeed, his speech was unusually focused on death, as he firmly stated that he would accept whatever happened to him. He had, after all, seen the Promised Land in his mind's eye.
"I may not get there with you," he said. "But I want you to know, tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."
Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was in attendance, called his wife afterward to tell her of the maelstrom of emotions that night.
"Martin had given the most brilliant speech of his life," he said. "He was lifted up and had some mysterious aura around him... I saw men crying."
Historian Joan Beifuss described the audience as being "caught between tears and applause" and said that King was hesitant to do anything besides stay in that church and surround himself with the people he had fought for so courageously all his life.
"He just wanted to stay there and meet people and shake their hands and talk to them," she said.
Eventually, however, the beloved leader left the church and his last night on Earth drew to a close.
The Assassination Of Martin Luther King
At 6:01 p.m. on the evening of April 4, Martin Luther King had just stepped out of room 306 and onto the balcony, intending to speak with members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference congregating in the parking lot below. They were heading out to have dinner at the home of Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles.
King joked to Jesse Jackson, "Jesse, we're on the way to Rev. Kyles home for dinner, and you don't have a tie on," as Jackson later recalled. "I said, 'Doc, the prerequisite for eating is an appetite, not a tie.'"
Meanwhile, King was preparing for another event that night and had just conferred with associate and musician Ben Branch, saying, "Ben, make sure you play 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty."
By all accounts, these were Martin Luther King's last words. Then, the fatal bullet struck his body.
Jackson as well as Ralph Abernathy and the other colleagues on hand tried desperately to save him while also pointing to the balcony across the street on the back of a boarding house on South Main Street, where the single shot had apparently come from.
Police rushed to the scene and began investigating while an ambulance took the body from the motel to St. Joseph's Hospital, where doctors pronounced Martin Luther King Jr. dead at 7.05 p.m.
Later that very night, during an address in Indianapolis, Senator Robert F. Kennedy broke the news of Martin Luther King's assassination to those listening and then quickly delivered a call for calm and peace:
"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black."
However, the weeks following Martin Luther King's death saw destruction reign while rays of hope offered just a bit of respite.
Courage And Chaos In The Aftermath
"A riot is the language of the unheard," Martin Luther King once said. And in the days following King's own death, the unheard and oppressed across the U.S. made their voices known.
The riots that erupted in more than 100 cities around the country following the riots marked nearly-unprecedented levels of unrest in American history. Especially in cities Chicago and Washington, D.C., business were looted, blocks burned down, and the National Guard stormed in as a last resort.
In Washington D.C. alone, President Johnson himself dispatched some 13,600 federal troops to combat crowds as large as 20,000 that had been clashing with the city's police force of about 3,000 members. At the same time, Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol.
As tempers slowly calmed nationwide, President Johnson subsequently called for April 7 to be a national day of mourning. Libraries, schools, museums, and businesses were all closed. Even the Academy Awards postponed their ceremony.
Meanwhile, Coretta King led a march of thousands across Memphis on April 8 in support of the sanitation workers on strike — just as her husband would have done had he been alive. His funeral was held the next day, with more than 100,000 grieving supporters following behind the two mules pulling King's coffin through Atlanta.
After the extreme rioting that occurred in over 100 American cities following Martin Luther King's death, Ray was tracked down and caught in London two months later. He quickly confessed and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
However, he later recanted his confession, which is just one piece of evidence cited by those who believe there's more to the story of Martin Luther King's assassination than meets the eye.
Silencing A King
One year to the day before the assassination of Martin Luther King, he delivered his famous Riverside Church speech in New York City. This address remains a striking example of the anti-Vietnam war stance that he increasingly adopted in his final years.
The speech argued that the civil rights movement and anti-war movements were linked and that the U.S. must cease all bombing of North and South Vietnam. He urged for peace talks, proposed a date of troop withdrawal, and suggested the war abroad was crippling America's own people back home.
"The war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home," he said. "We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem."
Meanwhile, King's Poor People's Campaign likewise upset a U.S. power structure benefitting from economic inequality and dividing people to fight each other rather than unite. According to the King Institute, he announced this campaign in November 1967 — less than half a year before he was gunned down. He sought a "middle ground between riots on the one hand and timid supplications for justice on the other" and for an initial mass of 2,000 poor people to march on the capitol.
King also demanded poor Americans receive unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, education for poor adults and children, and more. Unfortunately, the FBI had already begun to surveil him, form strategies to ruin his reputation, blackmail him, and neutralize him as an effective leader.
The Potential Conspiracy Surrounding Martin Luther King's Death
The FBI had been concerned as early as March 1956 that King was a communist, according to the King Institute. In 1962, the Communist Infiltration Program — intended to investigate any group or person suspected of communist subversion — began to set their sights on King.
FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover told Attorney General Robert Kennedy that one of King's closest aides, Stanley Levison, was "a secret member of the Communist Party" that year. Hoover then deployed agents to find incriminating material on King, with Kennedy authorizing the wiretaps on his home to do so.
The FBI eventually gathered tapes on King's extramarital affairs and even sent him an anonymous letter in 1964 claiming that the tapes would be released if he didn't either back down or kill himself (the language is purposefully vague).
With the FBI so bent on destroying King and even perhaps looking to see him die, theories have abounded that they or other government agencies were behind King's death as a way to silence his anti-establishment voice.
The widowed Coretta Scott King said in 1999 that there existed "overwhelming evidence that identified someone else, not James Earl Ray, as the shooter, and that Mr. Ray was set up to take the blame."
Ray had been arrested in London a month after Martin Luther King's death and pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty. He backtracked once incarcerated and said he was part of a conspiracy. The King family believed him — with King's son Dexter visiting Ray in 1977 and campaigning for his case to be reopened.
Ultimately, a civil court jury agreed in 1999 that King's death had, indeed, been the result of a conspiracy that involved someone else — for one, a middleman named Loyd Jowers and more powerful entities that he helped coordinate.
"The jury was clearly convinced by the extensive evidence that was presented during the trial that, in addition to Mr. Jowers, the conspiracy of the Mafia, local, state and federal government agencies, were deeply involved in the assassination of my husband," said Coretta King.
Jowers claimed he hired a crooked cop to kill King in order to silence his activism. Despite the jury finding him guilty of partaking in a conspiracy to murder Martin Luther King, James Earl Ray was the only man ever convicted of doing so.
In the last half-century since Martin Luther King's assassination, his family has spoken up publicly many times about the idea that there's more to his death than the history books say. But no matter what answers may or may not eventually come out, the death of Martin Luther King remains one of the most tragic turning points in modern American history.
After this look at the death of Martin Luther King, view these photos of the Kennedy assassination that most people have never seen before. Then, read about the history behind King's "I Have A Dream" speech.