April 4, 1968: How The Assassination Of MLK Happened

Streets ablaze from rioting on April 5, 1968, following assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo by Lee Balterman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at a hotel in Memphis Tennessee, a martyr's death that was a blow to the civil rights movement, the ideals of nonviolent resistance, and the peace-and-love sentiment that was taking root in the '60s.

Martin Luther King was an American civil rights leader best known for making great advancements in civil rights for black Americans. Born on January 15th, 1929 to Alberta Williams King and Martin Luther King Sr., he would go onto give some of the greatest speeches in American history. King led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott; the 1963 March on Washington; and he helped to organize the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. In October of 1964, he received the Nobel Peace Prize because he combated racial inequality through nonviolent resistance.

Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964. Source: Library of Congress

King received many death threats due to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. He said to his wife after the assassination of John F. Kennedy that, "This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society."

Plaque Outside Mason Temple Church of God in Christ - Where Martin Luther King Delivered His Mountaintop Speech - Downtown Memphis - Tennessee - USA. Source: Wikimedia Commons

On April 3rd 1968, King went to Memphis to speak to a crowd at the Mason Temple, but little did he know that he would deliver the last speech of his life. He stayed at the Lorraine Motel in room 306 every time he went to Memphis. He did it so often, that the room was known as the "King Abernathy Suite". On the evening of April 4th, King went on onto the hotel balcony and was hit at 6:01 p.m. by a single 0.30-0.6 bullet. The bullet hit him in the cheek, breaking his jaw and severing his jugular vein. He was then rushed to the St. Joseph's Hospital where cardiopulmonary resuscitation was attempted. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.

Witnesses point in the direction where the shots came from, as Martin Luther King lies shot on the landing.

Briefly after King was shot, witnesses claimed to see a man leaving a rooming house across the street from the Lorraine Motel. It was later found that James Earl Ray the perpetrator, rented a room there and also left a rifle and binoculars which both had his fingerprints. After the FBI investigated, there was a manhunt for Ray. On June 8, Ray was captured at London's Heathrow Airport while attempting to leave England on a fake Canadian passport. He was trying to fly to Belgium with the ultimate goal, he later admitted, of making it to Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe). Upon capture, Ray was extradited back to the United States where he was charged with the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in Tennessee.

View of Lorraine Hotel, from second floor bathroom window in the boarding house from where James Earl Ray was alleged to have fired the fatal shot at Martin Luther King, Jr. Source: Wikimedia Commons

On March 10th 1969, Ray confessed to assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly because of advice from his lawyer in order to avoid the death penalty. He received a sentence of 99 years in prison and then tried to change his sentence three days later. In 1977, Ray along with 7 other convicts escaped the State Penitentiary and were recaptured 3 days after. A year was then added making his total sentence 100 years.

There were many conspiracy theories surrounding King's death, many suggesting government or mafia involvement and holding that Ray was just a scapegoat and not really involved in the shooting. After his death, there were numerous riots throughout the US and many of them his close friends had a difficult time accepting it. The 3rd Monday of January each year is an American Federal holiday in his honor.