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What Happened 51 Years Ago in the Final Hours Before Martin Luther King Jr Was Assassinated



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.

Posted by National Civil Rights Museum on Tuesday, January 15, 2019

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.

Posted by National Civil Rights Museum on Sunday, March 31, 2019

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.”

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is pictured walking across the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, at approximately the spot where he was shot by a hidden assassin. (Charles Kelly / AP )

But those would be the last words the influential civil rights leader ever said. Only moments after, at 6:01 p.m., a bullet cut through the air and struck him in the neck.

The Rev. Andrew Young, who was on the balcony that day, said that Dr. King didn’t move or say a word after being shot.

He was rushed to a nearby hospital to be treated for his wounds, but they ultimately proved to be fatal. At 7:05 p.m. local time, he was pronounced dead at 39 years old.

Mary Ellen Norwood, a waitress and cook at the hotel, told “Today” that immediately following the gunshot, everyone was yelling “‘They shot Dr. King! They shot Dr. King! Somebody shot Dr. King!’ and that’s all you could hear,” she said through tears.

What happened after Dr. King’s assassination?

A state of emergency was declared in the city following Dr. King’s murder; 4,000 National Guard troops were called in by the Tennessee governor to help keep the peace in a sea of rising tension.

But that didn’t stop riots that broke out in more than 100 cities across the country as people tried to wrap their minds around the despicable act of violence.

During riots following Dr. King’s death, the 1968 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders concluded that America…

Posted by National Civil Rights Museum on Wednesday, January 9, 2019

“Today” News anchor, Frank Blair began his morning segment by saying, “There is shock, anger, and humiliation in America this morning because of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.”

Dr. King’s funeral was held on April 8 and drew attendees such as former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

The Memphis sanitation strike ended just a week later after the city council agreed to comply with the strikers’ demands.

Who killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was he caught?

A 40-year-old robber and prison escapee, James Earl Ray, was later identified as the assassin after investigators were able to pull his fingerprint off of the rifle used in the crime.

Ray shot Dr. King from a building across the street and it is now believed that the convicted felon had stalked his victim for over two weeks before pulling the trigger.

He was finally arrested in England later that summer, extradited back to America and placed in a courtroom in Memphis.

In 1969, he pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison; he later died in 1998 due to kidney disease.

What can we learn from Dr. King’s life and death?

I want to be careful here to not downplay the amount of passion Dr. King had fighting for his famous dream. We often talk about how Dr. King advocated for nonviolent demonstrations, but that does not mean that he passively accepted injustices.

In fact, it was quite the opposite.

His anger and frustration at injustice are what motivated his campaigns, but his marches were modeled after his godly love for others, even those who fought against him.

After all, the Bible tells us that those who follow the truths of the Bible will meet opposition and persecution, even from those who strive for the same outcome.

Dr. King’s actions are a great example of what the Lord told the Israelites he required of them, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

On the 51st anniversary of his death, take a moment to sit and remember how the world changed on April 4, 1968. Re-listen to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and remember the things he fought for.

It’s the only way we can avoid taking steps back to that time and continue to take steps in the right direction.

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1 Comment
  • Jefferson says:

    “Last hours”? Forgot about the lady friend that he had the night before!

  • RWF