*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
At 6:01pm on April 4, 1968, a gunshot cracked through the air. Within moments, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. was bleeding profusely on the walkway in front of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. An hour later, the influential African-American preacher was dead and the United States was thrown into turmoil.
For more than a decade, King grew in stature as the face of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. With each advance further into the public eye, first with the Montgomery Bus Boycott to support Rosa Parks’ fight against segregation and later with the marches from Selma, Alabama, the Baptist preacher became a target for attack. By the time of his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Washington Monument on August 28, 1963, there could be little argument he was the catalyst for a wider understanding of the difficulties faced by African-Americans — and, by extension, the face of progress some white Americans did not want to see.
Two months after he powerfully described his vision for a future in which his children would be “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” King stood in shock as President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22nd. His wife, Coretta, would later recall him turning to her and saying, “This is what is going to happen to me also.”
Eager to help the cause of fair treatment for all races move forward, King used his visibility to proclaim the movement would go on regardless of whether he survived or not. With the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it became clear he was correct: equality was a national concern and the federal government was determined to support justice in every facet of society.
On the city and state levels, however, official resistance was still strong. Much like when Little Rock High School was integrated in the late 1950s, governments across the South dragged their feet in meeting the requirement to level the playing field regardless of racial differences. White administrators utilized whatever means necessary to prevent change, often leaning on “states rights” arguments to support their position.
The differences in treatment came to a boil in Memphis late in February 1968, when fed-up black sanitation workers walked off the job to draw attention to the disparity in wages compared to their white counterparts. Further, when inclement weather grabbed hold of the city, African-Americans were expected to arrive at work regardless of the conditions while the rest of the staff stayed home. In a bid to show solidarity with the striking workers, King decided to stage a march in the city. Knowing his presence would bring national attention to the situation, he made his way to western Tennessee on April 3rd.
That night, King took the podium at the Mason Temple downtown, addressing a crowd filled with members of the Church of God in Christ and workers buoyed by his arrival. Through vocal force — as always — he moved attendees to applause, saying, “the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” As he wound down, his address tilted toward reflection, briefly mentioning the death threats he faced. As if to foretell his fate, he told the audience
“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…I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
The next evening, April 4, 1968, as King stood in front of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel discussing the plan for a gathering later that night, a bullet entered the right side of his face. James Earl Ray, firing a hunting rifle from a boarding house window some 200 feet away, inflicted a fatal wound: King’s neck was broken and his jugular vein severed. The Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, King’s longtime traveling companion, managed to stop the bleeding until emergency crews arrived but, an hour later, the 39-year-old preacher lay dead on an operating table at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
At the time of his death, King increasingly took on the role of an “old hand” in the fight against injustice, being brushed aside frequently by younger African-Americans calling for a more radical approach than King’s appeal to nonviolent struggle. As news of the assassination spread across the country, riots broke out in cities all over America. To many, the time for peaceful protest was over. The Black Power movement, spurred in part by King’s contemporary Malcom X earlier in the 1960s, found itself burgeoning with new recruits. Well into the 1970s, the Black Panther Party took up the banner of advancing African-American rights through all available avenues.
Ray was eventually captured in London two months later and extradited to the US for trial. Despite admitting guilt and being convicted in March 1969, he later claimed he was innocent — the victim of a conspiracy — as he served his 99-year penalty for the murder. (In 1999, a civil suit filed by King’s heirs would pin the crime on Loyd Jowers and “government agencies.”)
Fifteen years after King’s assassination, President Ronald Reagan authorized the creation of a national holiday to honor the civil rights leader’s memory. In time, a groundswell built for the creation of a monument. At the end of August 2011, the National Parks Service dedicated a statue commemorating the fallen preacher on the National Mall, not far from where he delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech 48 years before.
Also On This Day:
1721 – Sir Robert Walpole becomes the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
1814 – Napoleon Bonaparte officially abdicates for exile to Elba
1850 – Los Angeles, California is incorporated as a city
1905 – More than 20,000 people are killed in an earthquake in the Kangra Valley of northern India
1975 – Microsoft is founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen