The world is shocked once again by a senseless act of violence in the United States. One after another, Negroes have died in the long struggle to bring racial justice to the American continent. Most have died unsung – lynched, murdered, and buried in the swamps of the American South. Until recently their deaths awoke the conscience of few Americans and brought no change to the racialist structure of the Southern economic and social system. Now to their number is added Dr Martin Luther King. – The Guardian (Saturday, April 6, 1968)
This day in Black History – April 4, 1968
On Thursday, April 4, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated by a sniper as he stood while standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. News of his death was greeted with an outpouring of grief and rage. Riots erupted all over the country, primarily in black urban areas. At least 110 cities experienced violence and destruction in the next few days, resulting in roughly $50 million in damage. Of the 39 people who died, 34 were black. The worst riots were in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Over 22,000 federal troops and 34,000 national guard were sent to aid local police — the largest ever called to deal with domestic civil disturbance. In many cities the devastation was so great that it left a permanent scar, which was still evident decades later.
In Atlanta, King’s family and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), arranged his funeral. A controversial public figure, repeatedly praised and vilified, his life had been threatened many times. King himself had said that he did not expect to live a long life.
Sympathy poured forth from all over the world. In several countries marches were held to honor his memory. In this country, schools were closed in some cities and workers given time off to participate in services and commemorative events. Senator Edward Kennedy chartered a plane to take King’s body home. At least thirty planes and one hundred buses were chartered from around the country to bring mourners to Atlanta. On April 9th he was buried in the family plot at South View cemetery; eventually his remains were moved to the King Center for Non-Violence.
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the opening acts which plunged 1968 into a year of turmoil. Coming on the heels of the Tet Offensive which showed the war in Vietnam to be in disarray, and President Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election, King’s assassination was itself soon followed by the murder of Robert Kennedy, violence at the Democratic National Convention, and a general unraveling of the country into a period of violence and despair.
Like the other assassinations of the 1960s, the King murder had its “lone nut,” in this case James Earl Ray, an escaped convict who purchased the rifle found near the assassination scene and was caught in flight two months later. But, also like the other assassinations, evidence of conspiracy was easily found, despite being ignored by government investigators.
In the early evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by a single shot which struck his face and neck. He was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to lead a peaceful march in support of striking sanitation workers.
King had arrived in Tennessee on Wednesday, 3 April to prepare for a march the following Monday on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers. As he prepared to leave the Lorraine Motel for a dinner at the home of Memphis minister Samuel ‘‘Billy’’ Kyles, King stepped out onto the balcony of room 306 to speak with Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) colleagues standing in the parking area below. An assassin ﬁred a single shot that caused severe wounds to the lower right side of his face. SCLC aides rushed to him, and Ralph Abernathy cradled King’s head. Others on the balcony pointed across the street toward the rear of a boarding house on South Main Street where the shot seemed to have originated. An ambulance rushed King to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead at 7:05 P.M.
Shortly after the murder, a bundle was dropped near the door of Canipe’s Amusement Co. near the assassination scene, and a white Mustang sped away. Memphis police officers found the bundle to contain a .30-06 rifle, ammunition, a pair of binoculars, and other items. The rifle had been purchased in Birmingham by a Harvey Lowmeyer, later determined to be one of several aliases used by Ray.
Pursuit of the white Mustang was thwarted by CB radio transmissions which described a high-speed chase between the occupants of a blue Pontiac and the white Mustang, and even describing gun-play between the vehicles. These broadcasts appear to have been a hoax or diversion. The broadcaster of these CB radio transmissions has never been identified.
As King wrote in his last book: “The hard, cold facts of today indicate that the hope of the people of colour in the world may well rest on the American Negro and on his ability to reform the structure of racist imperialism from within and thereby turn the technology and wealth of the West to the task of liberating the world from want.” Harsh words. But with his assassination, America has moved one step nearer to chaos, and one step farther from community.
Black Westchester remembers the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In closing we leave you with the words from that scratchy recording of his voice explaining what he would like said at his own funeral:
“I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all the other shallow things will not matter.”