By Jueseppi B.
On April 4, 1968, LIFE photographer Henry Groskinsky and writer Mike Silva, on assignment in Alabama, learned that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The two men jumped into their car, raced the 200 miles to the scene of the assassination, and there — to their astonishment — found that they had unfettered access to the motel’s grounds; to nearby abandoned buildings from which the fatal rifle shot likely came; to Dr. King’s motel room; and to the bleak, blood-stained balcony where the civil rights leader fell, mortally wounded, hours earlier.
“I was astonished by how desolate it all was,” Groskinsky, now 79 years old, told LIFE.com when asked about the mood in the neighborhood around the motel. “Then again, everyone probably thought that the person who shot Dr. King might still be out there somewhere.”
For reasons that have been lost in the intervening decades, Groskinsky’s photographs from that eerily quiet night in Memphis — taken at the site, and on the very day, of one of the signal events of the 20th century — were not published in LIFE magazine, and the story behind them was not told. Until now.
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 Thursday 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. 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.
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 Loyd 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 King.
|Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.|
Martin Luther King, Jr.
|Date||April 4, 1968
6:01 p.m. (Central Time)
|Target||Martin Luther King, Jr.|
|Weapon(s)||Remington 760 Gamemaster alleged
|Perpetrators||James Earl Ray according to a criminal case;
Loyd Jowers & “others, including unspecified
governmental agencies” according to a
later civil case
1968 King Assassination Report (CBS News)
Uploaded on Apr 3, 2008
Walter Cronkite had almost finished broadcasting the “CBS Evening News” when he received word of Martin Luther King’s assassination. His report detailed the shooting and the nation’s reaction to the tragedy. (CBSNews.com)
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 1963JFK 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.”
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.
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. 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. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
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.”
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.”
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. The bullet entered through his right cheek, breaking his jaw, neck and several vertebrae as it traveled 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.
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. His SCLC colleague Andrew Young believed he was dead, though King still had a pulse.
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.
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).
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.
THE ASSASSINATION OF MARTIN LUTHER KING
Published on Nov 28, 2013
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.
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. 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 on a false Canadian passport in the name of Ramon George Sneyd. 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).
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. 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.
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.
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. 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 U.S. government, and that James Earl Ray was a scapegoat. This conclusion was affirmed by a jury in a 1999 civil trial against Loyd Jowers and unnamed co-conspirators, although no government agency or individual was named in that civil suit so no defense or evidence from the state was considered. The United States Department of Justice later found Jowers’ claims to not be credible.
Vigil to Mark Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Assassination
A candlelight vigil will be held Friday night to mark the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The vigil will begin at 7 p.m. at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is scheduled to speak at the vigil.
King was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. in 1968.
King was in Memphis to support black sanitary workers who had been on strike. The day before he was killed, King delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address in which he said, “I have 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. And 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.”
He was standing on the balcony at about 6 p.m. April 4, when James Earl Ray fatally shot him with a high-powered rifle. Some of the more famous photos of that day show people on the balcony pointing toward where they heard the shots fired from across the street and one of King after being felled by the bullet.
Friday’s ceremony will end with a wreath laying at the monument’s Stone of Hope.
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