Fifty-one years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a gunshot that was heard across the world and we are still feeling its impact today.
The events that took place on April 4, 1968, are a harrowing reminder of the amount of discord that existed in our country over a half-century ago. Just like any tragic event in history, it is worth revisiting no matter how uncomfortable it may make us feel so that we can be reminded of its implications and continue to strive to be better.
To understand why Dr. King was in Memphis in April 1968, we must first understand the amazing strides the Civil Rights movement had already made.
As a minister at a church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King heard the story of Rosa Parks who refused to give up her bus seat, and at only 26 years old, he quickly became the prominent leader of the city bus boycott.
Leader. Fighter. Servant. Peace maker. Dr. King continues to change the world. #OnThisDay in 1929, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott ended just over a year later when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on city transportation was illegal.
Dr. King’s nonviolent crusade quickly gained many followers as they organized marches all over the country.
In 1963 he delivered a speech that is etched into almost every Americans memory, no matter what generation or race they belong to.
In that speech, he shared how he hoped these marches would end: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The civil rights leader Martin Luther King (Center) waves to supporters August 28, 1963, on the Mall in Washington D.C. during the “March on Washington.” (AFP / Getty Images)
In the following year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed racial discrimination.
While legal changes had been made, people’s hearts hadn’t changed. Racial hatred still burned brightly in areas of the country, especially in the south.
Acts of hatred drove other minority movements to reject Dr. King’s call to nonviolence, but he remained firm in his belief that violence was not the answer. He was even awarded a Nobel Peace Price in 1965 for his efforts.
Why was Dr. King in Memphis in April 1968?
Earlier in 1968, two Memphis sanitation workers, Robert Walker and Echol Cole, were killed on the job. Due to the poor working conditions, they were crushed by a garbage truck.
Their deaths sparked an outrage among the black community ultimately leading to a worker’s strike that began on Feb. 12. The goal of the strike was to bring attention to the horrible working conditions and low pay wage.
The picket lines featured signs that read, “I Am a Man” to remind the city and their employers of their worth.
Dr. King flew to Memphis to bring national attention to the strike and to help lead nonviolent marches.
He was planning a march in the city of Memphis on Monday, April 8, 1968, that he didn’t live to lead.
Coretta Scott King (5th-Right) leads a “March on Memphis” April 8, 1968, five days after the assassination of her husband, U.S. clergyman and civil rights leader Martin Luther King. (AFP / Getty Images)
In his last speech, given at Mason Temple Church, he eerily spoke about how even though he wanted a long life, he might not be able to live to see the fruits of the Civil Rights movement.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place,” Dr. King said on April 3.
“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!”
What happened on April 4, 1968?
Dr. King and his party were getting ready to go to dinner on the evening of April 4, 1968, just before 6 p.m.
The Atlanta-born minister asked his driver from the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Hotel to get the car ready to go to dinner, according to the article published in the New York Daily News the following day.
Solomen Jones Jr. said, “It’s cold outside, Dr. King. Put your topcoat on.” Dr. King simply replied, “Okay, I will.”