At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was hit by a sniper's bullet. King had been standing on the balcony in front of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, when, without warning, he was shot. The .30-caliber rifle bullet entered King's right cheek, traveled through his neck, and finally stopped at his shoulder blade. King was immediately taken to a nearby hospital but was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.
Violence and controversy followed. In outrage of the murder, many blacks took to the streets across the United States in a massive wave of riots. The FBI investigated the crime, but many believed them partially or fully responsible for the assassination. An escaped convict by the name of James Earl Ray was arrested, but many people, including some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s own family, believe he was innocent.
What happened that evening?
Martin Luther King Jr: A Dedicated LeaderWhen Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as the leader of the a Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, he began a long tenure as the spokesperson for nonviolent protest in the Civil Rights Movement. As a Baptist minister, he was a moral leader to the community. Plus, he was charismatic and had a powerful way of speaking. He was also a man of vision and determination. He never stopped dreaming of what could be.
Yet he was a man, not a God. He was most often overworked and overtired. And he had a fondness for the private company of women. And though he was the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner, he did not have complete control over the Civil Rights Movement.
By 1968, violence had edged its way into the movement. Black Panther Party members carried loaded weapons; riots had erupted across the country; and numerous civil rights organizations had taken up the mantra "Black Power!"
Yet Martin Luther King held strong to his beliefs, even as he saw the Civil Rights Movement being torn in two. Violence is what brought King back to Memphis in April 1968.
Striking Sanitation Workers in MemphisOn February 12, thirteen hundred African-American sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike. Though there had been a long history of grievances, the strike was begun as a response to a January 31 incident in which 22 black sanitation workers were sent home without pay during bad weather while all the white workers remained on the job. When the City of Memphis refused to negotiate with the 1,300 striking workers, King and other civil rights leaders were asked to visit Memphis in support.
On Monday, March 18, King managed to fit in a quick stop in Memphis, where he spoke to over 15,000 who had gathered at Mason Temple. Ten days later, King arrived in Memphis to lead a march in support of the striking workers. Unfortunately, as King led the crowd, a few of the protesters got rowdy and smashed the windows of a storefront. The violence spread and soon countless others had taken up sticks and were breaking windows and looting stores.
Police moved in to disperse the crowd. Some of the marchers threw stones at the police. The police responded with tear gas and nightsticks. At least one of the marchers was shot and killed.
King was extremely distressed at the violence that had erupted in his own march and became determined not to let violence prevail. He scheduled another march in Memphis for April 8.
On April 3, King arrived in Memphis a little later than planned because there had been a bomb threat for his flight before takeoff. That evening, King delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech to a relatively small crowd that had braved the bad weather to hear King speak. King's thoughts were obviously on his mortality, for he discussed the plane threat as well as the time he had been stabbed. He concluded the speech with
Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. 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. 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.
After the speech, King went back to the Lorraine Motel to rest.