On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was slain in Memphis, Tennessee, an incident that sent shockwaves around the world. King, a Baptist minister and the founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), had led the civil rights movement since the mid-1950s, fighting segregation and achieving significant civil rights advances for African Americans through a combination of impassioned speeches and nonviolent protests. His assassination sparked an outpouring of rage among African-Americans, as well as a period of national mourning, which aided in the passage of an equitable housing measure, which would be the civil rights era’s final major legislative success.
Background On The Assassination Of King
Dr. King received increasing criticism in the final years of his life from young African American activists who advocated for a more radical approach to change. These young radicals were more aligned with the beliefs of Black nationalist leader Malcolm X (who was slain in 1965), who had called King’s nonviolence stance “criminal” in the face of continued racial oppression.
As a result of this criticism, King moved to broaden his appeal beyond his own race, vocally opposing the Vietnam War and seeking to establish a coalition of impoverished Americans, both black and white, to address issues like poverty and unemployment.
Jesse Jackson, one of King’s closest aides, was one of the witnesses to his killing. Soon after King’s death, Jackson was ordained as a minister and went on to form Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) and ran for president of the United States twice, in 1984 and 1988.
While preparing for a planned march to Washington to urge Congress on behalf of the poor in the spring of 1968, King and other members of the SCLC were invited to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a sanitation workers’ strike. King gave a speech at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis on April 3rd.
King’s speech seemed to foretell his own premature death, or at the very least strike a particularly contemplative tone, concluding with the now-historic words, “I’ve seen the promised land.” It’s possible that I won’t be able to accompany you. But I want you to know tonight that we shall reach the promised land as a people. And I’m in a good mood tonight. I am unconcerned about anything. I have no fear of men. My eyes have seen the splendor of the Lord’s coming.”
On September 20, 1958, King had already survived an assassination attempt in the shoe section of a Harlem department store. The encounter just strengthened his conviction in nonviolence.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Assassinated
A sniper’s bullet struck King in the neck at 6:05 p.m. the next day while he was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he and his colleagues were staying. He was brought to the hospital and proclaimed dead an hour later, at the age of 39.
The news of King’s death provoked unrest in more than 100 locations across the country, with riots and burning taking place. In the midst of a national outpouring of grief, President Lyndon B. Johnson implored Americans to “reject the blind violence” that had taken the life of King, whom he referred to as the “apostle of nonviolence.”
He also urged Congress to enact the civil rights legislation that is now being debated in the House of Representatives, calling it a suitable tribute to King and his life’s work. On April 11, Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, a landmark civil rights law prohibiting discrimination in housing sales, rentals, and financing based on race, religion, national origin, or sex. It is seen as a crucial follow-up to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Conspiracy To Assassinate King
At London’s Heathrow Airport on June 8, officials caught the suspect in King’s murder, a small-time criminal named James Earl Ray. Witnesses saw him rushing with a bundle from a boarding house near the Lorraine Motel; prosecutors claim he fired the fatal round from a restroom in that structure. Ray’s fingerprints were discovered on the rifle used to kill King, as well as a scope and a set of binoculars.
Ray pleaded guilty to King’s murder on March 10, 1969, and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. In his trial, no witnesses were called. Ray then recanted his confession, alleging that he had been the victim of a scheme.
Ray’s shot killed the monarch, according to the House Select Committee on Assassinations (which also looked into JFK’s assassination).
Ray later received support from an odd source: members of King’s family, especially his son Dexter, who met with Ray publicly in 1977 and began campaigning for his case to be reopened. Despite the fact that the US government performed multiple investigations into the trial, each of which confirmed Ray’s culpability as the lone assassin, the assassination remains controversial.
At the time of Ray’s death in 1998, King’s widow Coretta Scott King publicly lamented that “America will never have the benefit of Mr. Ray’s trial, which would have produced new revelations about the Memphis sanitation workers and carried on her husband’s mission of social change through nonviolent means” (King’s widow had courageously continued the campaign to aid the striking Memphis sanitation workers in the weeks after his death and carried on his mission of social change through nonviolent means in the weeks after his death).
The King’s Assassination Had A Significant Impact
Though both Black and white people mourned King’s death, the assassination widened the divide between black and white Americans in some respects, since many Black people perceived King’s assassination as a rejection of the nonviolent resistance that he had championed.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, his assassination, like that of Malcolm X in 1965, radicalized many moderate African American activists, spurring the emergence of the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party.
King has remained the most well-known African American leader of his generation, as well as the most visible and impassioned face of the civil rights movement. Before President Ronald Reagan signed the King holiday bill into law in 1983, a campaign to establish a national holiday in his honor began almost immediately after his death, and its proponents overcame significant opposition—critics pointed to FBI surveillance files suggesting King’s adultery and Communist influence.
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