Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1968.

The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. – April 4, 1968

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is a tragic event that occurred on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. King, a prominent civil rights leader and advocate for nonviolent protest, was shot and killed by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

The assassination of Martin Luther King had a profound impact on the United States, and the world, as he was a leading figure in the civil rights movement. His death sparked riots and protests across the country and led to a national mourning period.

Following the assassination, an investigation was launched, and James Earl Ray was identified as the prime suspect. He was captured in London two months later and extradited to the United States, where he eventually pleaded guilty to the crime and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Despite Ray’s conviction, many conspiracy theories continue to surround the assassination of King, and there are ongoing debates over whether he acted alone or was part of a larger plot. However, it is widely agreed that Martin Luther King’s death was a tragic loss to the civil rights movement and the world at large.

Martin-Luther-King-Jr
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., American clergyman and civil rights leader.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a charismatic leader, and his voice held such potency that aroused his people to action. During his lifetime, he would go on to become one of the most influential African-American of his generation, and indeed, generations to come.

This episode chronicles the life of Martin Luther King Jr., his ministry, personal exploits, his assassination and the aftermath of his death.

Early Life

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, to the family of Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams King on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, USA.

He had an older sister, Willie Christine, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. He was fondly called M.L. as a young boy. His father was the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His mother was a devout woman with a deep commitment to the Christian faith. His father was a courageous man, while his mother was soft-spoken and easy-going. He grew up in a racist community. There was deep-seated racial segregation in the society into which he was born. This would cause King to hate Whites early on but a few experiences later in life changed his perspective.

Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in a home of love and comfort. The principles his parents instilled in him would serve as a precursor to his global message – the message of Love.

He attended several schools as a child. He attended David T. Howard Elementary; later attended the Butler Street YMCA. His family moved to Boulevard and there, he attended Booker T. Washington High School.

Family and Ministry

Martin Luther King came from a bloodline of Baptist preachers. His great-grandfather, his grandfather, his father, his uncle, and his only brother were all preachers. However, he was unwilling to continue the same tradition that his family has had over the years. He was determined to chart a new course by creatively appropriating the thoughts, methods, and language of the leading preachers and theologians of the day.

At the age of 15, after graduating from High School, King moved on to Morehouse College until his graduation in 1948.

King proceeded to Crozer Theological Seminary. At Crozer, he began to study Mahatma Gandhi, after a sermon delivered by Dr Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University at the time.

King was deeply fascinated by Gandhi’s campaigns of nonviolent resistance. This eventually became instrumental in King’s life and his future endeavours. Through the life of Gandhi, King saw exclusively, the teachings of Jesus Christ play out. According to him, Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus Christ above mere interaction between individuals for a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to visit Biafra in a bid to end the civil war raging in Nigeria in March 1968 but the visit got cancelled and he was assassinated three weeks later on April 4, 1968.

King excelled greatly at Crozer Theological Seminary. He emerged as Valedictorian of his class in 1951 and was elected the Student Body President. He also earned a fellowship for graduate study. He moved on to Boston University to pursue his doctoral degree in Philosophy and Theology. There, he met Coretta Scott who eventually became his wife.

Martin Luther King met Coretta Scott at Boston University through a mutual friend, Mary Powell. She was into music and was more of an activist than King when they first met. An hour after meeting Coretta in person, King decided to marry her. The duo got married on June 18, 1953, and had four children – Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott, Yolanda Denise and Bernice Albertine.

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, secretary of the NAACP at the time, refused to give up her seat when asked to do so by the bus operator. At the time, Blacks were not allowed to sit at a particular section of the bus as it was reserved for Whites. The racial segregation at Montgomery was at its peak at the time. White supremacy, especially involving the Ku Klux Klan, was the dominant reality that affected the daily lives of the Blacks.

Rosa Parks was arrested, and her trial was set for December 5.

E.D. Nixon, Mary Fair Burks, and Jo Ann Robinson all became instrumental in the bus boycott which would take place later.

Nixon, who served as state President of the NAACP and President of the Montgomery branch, reached out to King. He also reached out to Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the young minister of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church. According to Nixon, it was time for action. Before the actions of Rosa Parks, the Black community in Montgomery had, over the years, talked about a bus boycott. In fact, several Blacks had stopped boarding the buses because of the humiliation they suffered at the hands of the Whites.

The trio of King, Nixon, and Abernathy would go on to reach out to several ministers and civic leaders and a boycott was set for December 5, 1955, the same day as the trial of Rosa Parks. King, scared that the boycott would not happen, was shocked to see that the buses were empty, devoid of Blacks and only a few White passengers. He found his way to the court where Rosa Parks was tried. She was found guilty and fined a total of $14. She would go on to appeal the decision.

After the trial, the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed. It was charged with leading the protest and King was elected President. A mass meeting was scheduled to hold that evening and King was to deliver one of the most decisive and life-changing speeches ever. He spurred the Black community to action and urged them to act in love, self-respect and dignity. The people of Montgomery were willing to walk, and as a result, King had the opportunity to lead.

The boycott which was supposed to last a day would culminate into several marching protests, and last almost a year. Eventually, on November 13, 1956, almost a year after the first boycott, the Supreme Court declared the state and local laws requiring segregation on the buses unconstitutional. This was the beginning of the victory for King and the Black community.

On December 20, 1956, the order finally reached Montgomery. Martin Luther King Jr. and the black community had won the fight against segregation on buses.

The fight for the Black man and the struggle against racial segregation had begun to expand and spread into several states of the country. King and several other enthusiastic men from the South established the Southern Leadership Conference which later became known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

1964 Civil Rights Act
The 1964 Civil Rights Act shattered the last of the power the Jim Crow laws possessed.

The organisation was charged with facilitating a coordinated action of local protest groups. King became the President of the SCLC.

Following the boycott, and the creation of the SCLC, the black community in several other states began to employ the nonviolent resistance technique in their protests.

Black students carried out a dignified nonviolent action against the system of segregation through sit-ins at lunch counters and other demonstrations. The movement was becoming even bigger and at some point, even the Whites began to be a part of it.

The March on Washington

The fight for the black race had culminated in the fight for jobs and freedom. Several local protests and movements were carried out. The most significant of all was the March On Washington.

On August 28, 1963, nearly about 250,000 people, including Whites, marched to the state capital. There, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the speech of a lifetime – I Have A Dream.

He met with President J.F. Kennedy, America’s president at the time and the Civil Rights Act was proposed.

When Lyndon Johnson became President after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, King met with President Johnson who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, subsequently, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1964, a year after the March On Washington, Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was selected by the Norwegian Parliament and was awarded the prize in Oslo, Norway. King recognized the importance of the prize as it meant that the movement was beginning to make waves, not only in America but in other parts of the world.

He turned over the prize money of $54,000 to further the civil rights movement.

At the age of 35, Martin Luther King Jr. became the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Disparity With Malcolm X

At the height of unrest and racial segregation in American society, there arose another influential African American leader, Malcolm X.

Martin Luther King had a vision; one that transcended the black man to the whole human race. A world of love and unity where colour will no longer be a determinant of the rights and privileges which one should enjoy. As the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King advocated for nonviolence. He was a negotiator, not a fighter. He believed in the potency of love as the elixir for all the hate meted out against the Black man.

On the other hand, Malcolm X, an international speaker for the Nation of Islam, taught otherwise. He believed in self-defence and he taught his followers likewise. He preached that the Blacks do not take up the Christian religion. He also urged the Blacks not to participate in the elections claiming that the elections supported the immoral political system of the United States.

While Malcolm X was committed to uplifting the black race, Martin Luther King Jr. was committed to uplifting humanity.

A few years later, after Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca, and a complete transformation had taken place in his life, the two went on to work together in achieving the goal of educating the black race on their civil and political rights.

The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

As the years rolled by, several nonviolent protests took place. From Alabama to Selma to Montgomery and several parts of the country, the struggle for the black man continued to progress. However, all the years of marching, the several jail terms, and the criticism of the nonviolent resistance by Black militants began to take their toll on King.

In 1968, plans for another March On Washington had begun to spring forth to revive the movement and shed light on several issues. However, a labour strike by the Memphis Sanitation Workers drew King’s attention.

On April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple, Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. would go on to deliver his final and seemingly prophetic speech – “I Have Been To The Mountain Top.”

Martin Luther King Jr.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., American clergyman and civil rights leader, at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee, USA, minutes before he was shot and killed, April 4, 1968.

The following day, on April 4, 1968, around 6 p.m., King stood on the balcony of his motel room and was preparing for dinner with a local minister. There, he was shot and rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital. However, the bullet had punctured several arteries and his spine. King was declared dead at 7:05 p.m. He was 39 years old.

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led to several riots and the outbreak of violence across several cities in the country. The riots were reported to have led to several casualties and arrests of many people.

President Lyndon Johnson declared April 7, 1968, a National Day of Mourning.

The next day, on April 8, 1968, Coretta Scott King led about 42,000 demonstrators through the streets of Memphis.

Martin Luther King’s supposed killer, James Earl Ray, would at first, confess to the crime, but soon after, confessed to the King’s family that there was a conspiracy in the assassination of the civil rights leader. The King family believed that Ray was framed and until her death in 2006, Coretta Scott King refused to believe Ray was responsible for the killing of her husband.

Years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the truth behind his assassination and death remains unknown.

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Sources

Besel, R, D. & Duffy, B, K. (2010). Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” and the politics of cultural memory: An Apostil. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/48909316

Biography.com Editors. (2014/2022). Martin Luther King Jr. Biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/activist/martin-luther-king-jr

Carson, C. (Ed.). (2001/2004). Martin Luther King, JR. Warner Books, Hachette Book Group USA.

Carson, C. and Lewis. David L. (2023, April 27). Martin Luther King, Jr.. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther-King-Jr

Haberman, F, W. (Ed.). (1972). Martin Luther King Jr.-Biography. Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam. Retrieved from https://nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1964/king/biographical/

Jackman, T. (2018). Who killed Martin Luther King Jr.? His family believes James Earl Ray was framed. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/03/30/who-killed/martin-luther-king-jr-his-family-believes-james-earl-ray-was-framed/

Jackson, T. (2008). Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the making of a national leader. The university press of Kentucky.

Ott, T. (2020/2021). The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr-assasination

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