Today in history, on April 4, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It was shortly after 6 P.M. when King was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee when a sniper shot was fired and struck King in the jaw. The bullet then travelled through Dr.Kings neck, severing the humanitarians spinal cord and then embedding itself in the activists shoulder-blade. Dr. King was in Memphis to march on behalf of the Memphis sanitation workers who were striking at that time. King was scheduled to march on the following Monday. On April 4, however, King was preparing to go to dinner to Samuel Kyles home, a Memphis minister. Outside King’s room, standing in the parking lot, were colleagues of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King stepped onto the balcony from the civil rights leaders room, 306, to address the American pastors comrades. In that moment, at approximately 6:05 P.M., a shot rang out that changed history forever.
It was later confirmed that the gun used to assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Remington Model 760 rifle chambered in caliber .30-06. Instantly, aides of the SCLC ran to King’s side but it was Ralph Abernathy, closest to King, who was cradling King’s head in Abernathy’s arms. People on the balcony were pointing across the street at the back of a boarding house where the fires seemed to have originated from. King was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital and at 7:05 P.M., the civil rights leader was pronounced dead.
What transpired afterwards was outrage and violence. African-Americans all over the United States took to the streets in massive riots as news of the assassination of Martin Luther King spread. The hysterical rioting was so bad that the National Guard were sent in to Washington and Memphis to control the crowds.
Later that evening a pump-action rifle of the same make that was used to kill King was located on a sidewalk, one block away from the Lorraine Motel, beside a boarding house. Rumors of conspiracy were already underway and in the weeks to follow the search was on using eyewitness reports and alleged fingerprints found on the rifle which directed authorities to James Earl Ray, an escaped convict. Local authorities and the F.B.I. also confirmed that Ray had rented a second-floor room in the boarding house on South Main Street, with a view of the Lorraine Motel. Ray was charged and imprisoned in Missouri in 1967 for a hold-up. The manhunt for Ray was at its peak in May 1968 and the F.B.I. had assumed the convict had escaped to Canada using a passport Ray had obtained under a false identity. Back in 1968, achieving this goal was no difficult feat like it would be today.
King’s last sermon was in Memphis the day before his assassination. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead.” King preached. “But it really doesn’t matter with me now,” King said, “because I’ve been to the mountaintop.” Looking back, King’s words seem chilling as if the humanitarian had foreseen the tragic upcoming events. “I may not get there with you.” said Dr.King, “but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” The very next day, King was assassinated. Five days later, on April 9, Dr. Martin Luther King was buried in Atlanta, Georgia, King’s hometown. As the leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement’s casket made its way to King’s final resting place, tens of thousands of people lined the streets to pay respects and get a glimpse of the casket which was placed on a humble farm cart led by two mules.
Ray was caught by the Scotland Yard on June 8 of the same year at Heathrow Airport in London, England. Ray admitted that the criminal was planning to go to Belgium and eventually end up in Rhodesia, what is now Zimbabwe today. Then, Rhodesia was ruled by an oppressive white minority government which was internationally condemned. Ray was extradited back to the U.S. and sent to trial where, in March 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ray would be spared from the electric chair by pleading guilty and instead was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Ray, however, had tried to change his plea from guilty to not guilty three days later.
The alleged assassin had a new story to tell and it was an echo of the feelings of millions of Americans, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s own family. Ray had claimed that the convict was being set up by powerful authorities to take the blame for King’s death. The conspiracy had apparently began when Ray was approached by a man named Raoul and was brought into a gun-running business. Ray said that on the fateful day of King’s murder, the criminal realized that Ray was the one chosen to take the fall. Ray then escaped to Canada and, eventually, was found in London, England. Ray’s pleas fell on deaf ears and all motions Ray put forward in the next 29 years were all denied.
J.Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I. director, had been following King for 6 years prior to the humanitarians assassination. Hoover was obsessed and convinced that King was a communist. King was under strict surveillance with wiretaps and constant aggravation from the F.B.I. King’s reputation with the U.S. government was not a very positive one as King spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1967. The civil rights leader wasn’t winning over any government officials hearts as King demanded economic equality for all in America. On March 28, 1968 King held a protest march in Memphis, Tennessee for the badly treated African-American sanitation workers that ended up in such brutality which took the life of an African-American youth. King left Memphis after that but not without promising that the humanitarian would return in the following month to lead another protest march.
In the 1990’s, Coretta Scott King and the widow’s children all spoke out publicly in defense of James Earl Ray. Citing that Ray was set up and that there was a bigger conspiracy going on with the assassination of King. A conspiracy that involved U.S. military authorities and the U.S. government. The case of King’s assassination was reopened many times by various offices such as the U.S. Justice Department, Shelby County, the district attorney’s office, the House Select Committee on Assassination and by the state of Tennessee. Every outcome was the same. James Earl Ray was found guilty of murder. However, King’s family finally found justice and peace of mind when a unanimous verdict was given on December 8, 1999. After just an hour of deliberation, the jurors concluded that Dr. King was a victim of conspiracy and thus the reason King was assassinated back in 1968.
King’s widow released a statement expressing the families joy and feelings of justice that was finally felt. “The jury was clearly convinced by the extensive evidence that was presented during the trial that,” Coretta Scott King said, “in addition to Mr. Jowers, the conspiracy of the mafia, local, state and federal government agencies, were deeply involved in the assassination of my husband.”
Loyd Jowers was the owner of a restaurant named Jim’s Grill that was located close to the Lorraine Motel. Jowers claimed early on that King was the subject of conspiracy with the U.S. government and the mafia. The restaurant owner also claimed that it was Earl Clark, a Memphis police officer Lieutenant, who fired the fatal, single shot that killed Dr. King.
Though the verdict agreed with King’s families long time claims that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated under a conspiracy, the only justice really brought forth from the trial was that which gave peace of mind to the family. Certainly no one was charged or sentenced from the 1999 verdict and James Earl Ray, sadly, had died the year before. Ironically, Ray died in the month of April, the same month the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. occurred.
By Derik L. Bradshaw