Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination

Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination

Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Location Memphis, Tennessee

35°08′04″N 90°03′27″W / 35.1345°N 90.0576°W / 35.1345; -90.0576Coordinates: 35°08′04″N 90°03′27″W / 35.1345°N 90.0576°W / 35.1345; -90.0576

Date April 4, 1968
6:01 p.m. (Central Time)
Target Martin Luther King, Jr.
Weapon(s) Remington 760 Gamemaster alleged but unconfirmed
Perpetrators James Earl Ray according to a criminal case; Loyd Jowers & "others, including unspecified governmental agencies" according to a later civil case

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American clergyman, activist, and prominent leader of the African-American civil rights movement and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who became known for his advancement of civil rights by using civil disobedience. He was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. King was rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:05PM that evening. James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary, was arrested on June 8, 1968 in London at Heathrow Airport, extradited to the United States, and charged with the crime. On March 10, 1969, Ray entered a plea of guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary.[1] Ray later made many attempts to withdraw his guilty plea and be tried by a jury, but was unsuccessful; he died in prison on April 23, 1998, at the age of 70.[2]

The King family and others believe that the assassination was carried out by a conspiracy involving the US government, as alleged by Loyd Jowers in 1993, and that James Earl Ray was a scapegoat. In a 1999 civil trial that did not name the US government as a defendant and sought $100 from Jowers, with both the family and Jowers cooperating together and the only presenting parties, the jury ruled that Loyd Jowers and others, including unspecified governmental agencies, were all part of the conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King Jr.[3][4]


King on death

King received death threats constantly due to his prominence in the civil rights movement. As a consequence of these threats, he confronted death constantly, making it a central part of his philosophy. He believed, and taught that murder could not stop the struggle for equal rights. After the 1963 JFK assassination, he told his wife Coretta: "This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society."[5][6]


King travelled to Memphis, Tennessee in support of striking African American sanitation workers. The workers had staged a walkout on February 11, 1968, to protest unequal wages and working conditions imposed by then-mayor Henry Loeb. At the time, Memphis paid black workers significantly lower wages than whites. In addition, unlike white people, black people received no pay if they stayed home during bad weather; consequently, most black people were compelled to work even in driving rain and snow storms.[7][8][9]

On April 3, King returned to Memphis to address a gathering at the Mason Temple (World Headquarters of the Church of God in Christ). His airline flight to Memphis was delayed by a bomb threat against his plane.[10][11] With a thunderstorm raging outside, King delivered the last speech of his life, now known as the "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address. As he neared the close, he made reference to the bomb threat:

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats... or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. [applause] And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. 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! [applause] And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord![12]


King was booked in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, owned by businessman Walter Bailey (and named after his wife). King's close friend and colleague Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, who was King's roommate in the motel room the day of the assassination, told the House Select Committee on Assassinations that King and his entourage stayed in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel so often that it was known as the "King-Abernathy Suite."[13]

According to biographer Taylor Branch, King's last words were to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at an event King was going to attend: "Ben, make sure you play 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty."[14]

At 6:01 p.m. on Thursday, April 4, 1968, while he was standing on the motel's second floor balcony, King was struck by a single .30-06 bullet fired from a Remington 760 Gamemaster.[15] The bullet entered through his right cheek, breaking his jaw, neck and several vertebrae as it travelled down his spinal cord, severing the jugular vein and major arteries in the process before lodging in his shoulder. By the force of the blast, King's necktie was ripped completely off his shirt. He fell violently backwards onto the balcony unconscious. Shortly after the shot was fired, witnesses saw James Earl Ray fleeing from a rooming house across the street from the Lorraine Motel where he was renting a room. A package was dumped close to the site that included a rifle and binoculars with Ray's fingerprints on them. The rifle had been purchased by Ray under an alias six days before. A worldwide manhunt was triggered that culminated in the arrest of Ray at London Heathrow Airport two months later.[16]

Abernathy heard the shot from inside the motel room and ran to the balcony to find King on the floor. King was bleeding profusely from the wound in his cheek.[15][17] His SCLC colleague Andrew Young believed he was dead, though King still had a pulse.[18]

King was rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital, where doctors opened his chest and performed Cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. According to Taylor Branch, King's autopsy revealed that though he was only 39 years old, he had the heart of a 60-year-old man which Branch attributed to the stress of 13 years in the civil rights movement.[19]


Within the movement

For some, King's assassination meant the end of a strategy of non-violence.[20]

Others simply reaffirmed the need to carry on his work. Leaders within the SCLC confirmed that they would carry on this Poor People's Campaign in his absence.[21] Some black leaders argued the need to continue King's tradition of nonviolence.[20]

Robert F. Kennedy speech

A speech on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. was given on April 4, 1968, by New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy (who was himself assassinated two months later). Kennedy was campaigning for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination and had spoken at the University of Notre Dame and Ball State University earlier that day.[22] Before boarding a plane to fly to Indianapolis for one last campaign speech in a predominantly black neighborhood of the city he learned that Martin Luther King had been shot, leading Kennedy press secretary Frank Mankiewicz to suggest that he ask the audience to pray for the King family and ask them to follow King's deeply held belief in non-violence.[23] They did not learn that King was dead until they landed in Indianapolis.

Both Mankiewicz and speechwriter Adam Walinsky drafted notes immediately before the rally for Kennedy's use, but Kennedy refused Walinsky's notes, instead using some that he had likely written on the ride over; Mankiewicz arrived after Kennedy had already begun to speak.[24] Prior to arriving at the rally, the Chief of Police in Indianapolis told Kennedy that he could not provide protection and that giving the remarks would be too dangerous,[25] but Kennedy decided to go ahead regardless. Standing on a podium mounted on a flatbed truck, Kennedy spoke for just four minutes and fifty-seven seconds.[26]

Robert F. Kennedy was the first to inform the audience of the death of Martin Luther King, causing some in the audience to scream and wail. Several of Kennedy's aides were even worried that the delivery of this information would result in a riot.[27] Once the audience quieted down, Kennedy acknowledged that many in the audience would be filled with anger. But then Kennedy went on: "For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man." These remarks surprised Kennedy aides, who had never heard him speak publicly of John F. Kennedy's death.[28] Kennedy continued, saying that the country had to make an effort to "go beyond these rather difficult times," and then quoted a poem by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, on the theme of the wisdom that comes, against one's will, from pain. To conclude, Kennedy said that the country needed and wanted unity between blacks and whites, asked the audience members to pray for the King family and the country, and once more quoted the ancient Greeks.

The speech was credited in part with preventing post-assassination rioting in Indianapolis where it was given, though there were riots in many other parts of the country.[29] It is widely considered one of the greatest speeches in American history.[30]

President Lyndon Johnson

President Lyndon Johnson was in the Oval Office, planning a consultation in Hawaii with Vietnam War military commanders. After press secretary George Christian informed him of the assassination at 8:20PM, he canceled the trip to Hawaii and turned his attention homeward. He assigned Attorney General Ramsey Clark to investigate the assassination in Memphis. He also made a personal call to Dr. King's wife, Coretta Scott King.[31]

White America

In the wake of King's death, journalists reported callous or hostile reactions from many parts of white America, particularly in the south. Journalist David Halberstam, who reported on King's funeral, recounted a comment at an affluent white dinner party: "One of the wives—station wagon, three children, forty-five-thousand-dollar house—leaned over and said, 'I wish you had spit in his face for me.' It was a stunning moment; I wondered for a long time afterwards what King could possibly have done to her, in what conceivable way he could have threatened her, why this passionate hate."[32]

On the other hand, a survey sent to a group of college trustees revealed that their opinions of King had increased after his assassination.[5]

An editorial in the New York Times praised King, called his murder a "national disaster" and his cause "just."[33][34]

Public figures generally praised King. Even George Wallace, a notorious segregationist, described the assassination as a "senseless, regrettable act."[20]


Main article: King assassination riots

Colleagues of Dr. King in the civil rights movement called for a non-violent response to the assassination, to honor his most deeply held beliefs. James Farmer, Jr. said:

"Dr. King would be greatly distressed to find that his blood had triggered off bloodshed and disorder... I think instead the nation should be quiet; black and white, and we should be in a prayerful mood, which would be in keeping with his life. We should make that kind of dedication and commitment to the goals which his life served to solving the domestic problems. That's the memorial, that's the kind of memorial we should build for him. It's just not appropriate for there to be violent retaliations, and that kind of demonstration in the wake of the murder of this pacifist and man of peace."[35]

The more militant Stokely Carmichael, however, called for more forceful action, saying:

"White America killed Dr. King last night. She made a whole lot easier for a whole lot of black people today. There no longer needs to be intellectual discussions, black people know that they have to get guns. White America will live to cry that she killed Dr. King last night. It would have been better if she had killed Rap Brown and/or Stokely Carmichael, but when she killed Dr. King, she lost."[35]

Despite the urging of many leaders, the assassination led to a nationwide wave of riots in more than 100 cities.[36] After the assassination, the city of Memphis quickly settled the strike on favorable terms to the sanitation workers.[37][38]

FBI investigation

The Federal Bureau of Investigation took responsibility for investigating King's death. J. Edgar Hoover, who had previously made efforts to undermine King's reputation, told Johnson that his agency would attempt to find the culprit(s).[31]

Many documents pertaining to this investigation remain classified, and are slated to remain secret until 2027. A proposed Records Collection Act, similar to a 1992 law concerning the Kennedy assassination, would require their immediate release.[39]


Main article: Funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.

President Lyndon B. Johnson declared April 7 a national day of mourning for the lost civil rights leader. A crowd of 300,000 attended his funeral two days later, on April 9.[31] Vice President Hubert Humphrey attended on behalf of Lyndon B. Johnson, who was at a meeting on the Vietnam War at Camp David. (There were fears that Johnson might be hit with protests and abuses over the war if he attended). At his widow's request, King eulogized himself: His last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a recording of his famous 'Drum Major' sermon, given on February 4, 1968, was played at the funeral. In that sermon he makes a request that at his funeral no mention of his awards and honors be made, but that it be said that he tried to "feed the hungry," "clothe the naked," "be right on the [Vietnam] war question," and "love and serve humanity."

James Earl Ray

Capture and guilty plea

Two months after King's death, escaped convict James Earl Ray was captured at London Heathrow Airport while trying to leave the United Kingdom for Angola, Rhodesia or South Africa[40] on a false Canadian passport in the name of Ramon George Sneyd.[41] Ray was quickly extradited to Tennessee and charged with King's murder, confessing to the assassination on March 10, 1969 (although he recanted this confession three days later).

On the advice of his attorney Percy Foreman, Ray took a guilty plea to avoid a trial conviction and thus the possibility of receiving the death penalty. Ray was sentenced to a 99-year prison term.[42]

Ray fired Foreman as his attorney (from then on derisively calling him "Percy Fourflusher") claiming that a man he met in Montreal with the alias "Raul" was involved, as was his brother Johnny, but not himself, further asserting through his attorney Jack Kershaw that although he did not "personally shoot King," he may have been "partially responsible without knowing it," hinting at a conspiracy.[43] He spent the remainder of his life attempting (unsuccessfully) to withdraw his guilty plea and secure the trial he never had. In 1997, Martin Luther King's son Dexter King met with Ray, and publicly supported Ray's efforts to obtain a retrial.[44]

Dr. William Pepper remained James Earl Ray's attorney until Ray's death and then carried on, on behalf of the King family. The King family does not believe Ray had anything to do with the murder of Martin Luther King.[45]


Ray and seven other convicts escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, on June 10, 1977. They were recaptured on June 13, three days later, and returned to prison.[46] One more year was added to his previous sentence to total 100 years. Shortly after, Ray testified that he did not shoot King to the House Select Committee on Assassinations.


Ray died in prison on April 23, 1998, at the age of 70 from complications related to kidney disease, caused by hepatitis C (probably contracted as a result of a blood transfusion given after a stabbing while at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary). It was also confirmed in the autopsy that he died of liver failure.

Allegations of conspiracy

The King family and others believe that the assassination was carried out by a conspiracy involving the US government, and that James Earl Ray was a scapegoat. This conclusion was affirmed by a jury in a 1999 civil trial.[47]

In 2004, Jesse Jackson, who was with King at the time of his death, noted:

The fact is there were saboteurs to disrupt the march. [And] within our own organization, we found a very key person who was on the government payroll. So infiltration within, saboteurs from without and the press attacks. …I will never believe that James Earl Ray had the motive, the money and the mobility to have done it himself. Our government was very involved in setting the stage for and I think the escape route for James Earl Ray.[48]
According to biographer Taylor Branch, King's friend and colleague James Bevel put it more bluntly: "[T]here is no way a ten-cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man."[49]

The impending occupation of Washington D.C. by the Poor People's Campaign is suggested as a primary motive for a federal assassination.[47] Reverend James Lawson also noted during the civil trial that King alienated President Johnson and other powerful government actors when he repudiated the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967—exactly one year before the assassination.[50]

Ray as scapegoat

Some claim that Ray's confession was given under pressure, and that he had been threatened with the death penalty if he did not confess.[51][52]

The two separate ballistic tests conducted on the Remington Gamemaster allegedly used by Ray in the assassination were inconclusive.[53][54] Moreover, witnesses surrounding King at the moment of the shooting say the shot was fired from a different location, from behind thick shrubbery near the rooming house, and not from the rooming house window.[55]

Loyd Jowers

In December 1993, Loyd Jowers appeared on ABC's Prime Time Live and related the details of an alleged conspiracy involving the Mafia and the U.S. government to kill King. According to Jowers, James Earl Ray was a scapegoat, and not involved in the assassination. Jowers believed that Memphis police officer Lieutenant Earl Clark fired the fatal shot.

Civil case for conspiracy

In 1999, the King family conducted a civil case to consider the existence of an assassination conspiracy. The suit (for wrongful death) mentioned only Loyd Jowers by name, but also alleged government involvement.[47]

The jury–six blacks and six whites—found that King had been the victim of assassination by a conspiracy involving the Memphis police as well as federal agencies. This verdict affirmed Ray's innocence, which the King family has always maintained.[50][56] William F. Pepper represented the King family in the trial.[57][58][59] The family requested a mere $100 in restitution to show that they were not pursuing the case for financial gain.

Denials of conspiracy

King biographer David Garrow disagrees with William F. Pepper's claims that the government killed King. He is supported by author Gerald Posner.[60]

In 2000, the Department of Justice completed the investigation about Jowers' claims but did not find evidence to support the allegations about conspiracy. The investigation report recommends no further investigation unless some new reliable facts are presented.[61]

Henry Clay Wilson theory

A church minister, Ronald Denton Wilson, claimed his father, Henry Clay Wilson, assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., not James Earl Ray.[62] He stated, "It wasn't a racist thing; he thought Martin Luther King was connected with communism, and he wanted to get him out of the way." But Wilson had reportedly admitted previously that his father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.[63]


External links

  • Department of Justice investigation on assassination
  • Congressional Report on King's assassination
  • Shelby County Register of Deeds documents on the Assassination Investigation
  • Donald E. Wilkes Jr, Death of MLK Still a Mystery (1987).
  • Donald E. Wilkes Jr, What are Facts of MLK Murder? (1987).