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At the crossroads: The assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Nation remembers MLK's legacy after 42 years

Posted: April 4, 2008 8:02 p.m.
Updated: April 4, 2011 8:14 p.m.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is seen in this undated file photo. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is seen in this undated file photo.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is seen in this undated file photo.
Civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gestures during a speech at a political rally in Montgomery, Ala., in this April 29, 1966 file photo. Now, four decades after his assassination, the anniversary of his death is marked by a documentary that explores his life and legacy. "King" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on the History Channel. Civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gestures during a speech at a political rally in Montgomery, Ala., in this April 29, 1966 file photo. Now, four decades after his assassination, the anniversary of his death is marked by a documentary that explores his life and legacy. "King" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on the History Channel.
Civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gestures during a speech at a political rally in Montgomery, Ala., in this April 29, 1966 file photo. Now, four decades after his assassination, the anniversary of his death is marked by a documentary that explores his life and legacy. "King" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on the History Channel.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, second right, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference aides Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson Jr., from left, and Ralph Abernathy return to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to strategize for the second sanitation workers' march in this April 3, 1968 file photo. King was shot dead on the balcony at 6:01 the next evening. The photo is part of the exhibition "From Memphis to Atlanta: The Drum Major Returns Home" at Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site April 4-Aug. 31, 2008. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, second right, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference aides Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson Jr., from left, and Ralph Abernathy return to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to strategize for the second sanitation workers' march in this April 3, 1968 file photo. King was shot dead on the balcony at 6:01 the next evening. The photo is part of the exhibition "From Memphis to Atlanta: The Drum Major Returns Home" at Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site April 4-Aug. 31, 2008.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, second right, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference aides Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson Jr., from left, and Ralph Abernathy return to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to strategize for the second sanitation workers' march in this April 3, 1968 file photo. King was shot dead on the balcony at 6:01 the next evening. The photo is part of the exhibition "From Memphis to Atlanta: The Drum Major Returns Home" at Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site April 4-Aug. 31, 2008.
Robert F. Kennedy, shown in this April 4, 1968 file photo, speaks to an Indianapolis, Ind., crowd telling them of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. earlier that evening. As riots erupted in dozens of cities, Kennedy's speech that night is credited for helping keep Indianapolis calm. Robert F. Kennedy, shown in this April 4, 1968 file photo, speaks to an Indianapolis, Ind., crowd telling them of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. earlier that evening. As riots erupted in dozens of cities, Kennedy's speech that night is credited for helping keep Indianapolis calm.
Robert F. Kennedy, shown in this April 4, 1968 file photo, speaks to an Indianapolis, Ind., crowd telling them of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. earlier that evening. As riots erupted in dozens of cities, Kennedy's speech that night is credited for helping keep Indianapolis calm.
This April 9, 1968 photo released by the MLK Jr. National Historic Site shows the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's body en route to Morehouse College in Atlanta, on a mule-drawn wagon accompanied by his aides dressed in denim attire. The wagon, mules and clothes symbolized the Poor People's Campaign. This photo is part of the exhibition "From Memphis to Atlanta: The Drum Major Returns Home" at Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site April 4-Aug. 31, 2008. This April 9, 1968 photo released by the MLK Jr. National Historic Site shows the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's body en route to Morehouse College in Atlanta, on a mule-drawn wagon accompanied by his aides dressed in denim attire. The wagon, mules and clothes symbolized the Poor People's Campaign. This photo is part of the exhibition "From Memphis to Atlanta: The Drum Major Returns Home" at Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site April 4-Aug. 31, 2008.
This April 9, 1968 photo released by the MLK Jr. National Historic Site shows the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's body en route to Morehouse College in Atlanta, on a mule-drawn wagon accompanied by his aides dressed in denim attire. The wagon, mules and clothes symbolized the Poor People's Campaign. This photo is part of the exhibition "From Memphis to Atlanta: The Drum Major Returns Home" at Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site April 4-Aug. 31, 2008.
Martin Luther King III, son of civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaks during an interview in Atlanta in this Dec. 8, 2006 file photo. King III talks about his father's life and legacy in "King," a History Channel documentary hosted by Tom Brokaw airing Sunday night at 8. Martin Luther King III, son of civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaks during an interview in Atlanta in this Dec. 8, 2006 file photo. King III talks about his father's life and legacy in "King," a History Channel documentary hosted by Tom Brokaw airing Sunday night at 8.
Martin Luther King III, son of civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaks during an interview in Atlanta in this Dec. 8, 2006 file photo. King III talks about his father's life and legacy in "King," a History Channel documentary hosted by Tom Brokaw airing Sunday night at 8.
The sun shines on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., Tuesday, March 25, 2008. The site where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum. The sun shines on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., Tuesday, March 25, 2008. The site where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum.
The sun shines on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., Tuesday, March 25, 2008. The site where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum.
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Editor's note: This is an update of "A Closer Look" first published April 4, 2008.

"...One more in the name of love..."
- U2, "Pride...In the Name of Love"

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was at a crossroads when he arrived in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968.

The Atlanta-born son of a minister and doctor of divinity had led the civil rights movement in the United States since Dec. 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, a black woman, defied state law and refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., city bus to a white person. Dr. King took up her cause.

A year-long campaign of public yet peaceful protest and boycotts had eventually desegregated the buses there; it also moved Dr. King - already a powerful, eloquent and charismatic speaker - into a national leadership role.

Almost a decade later, on Aug. 28, 1963, King had stood at a podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of 200,000 people, delivering the keynote address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in his role as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he had co-founded in 1957.

"I have a dream," he said, sharing his vision of an American society in which people judged each other by the merit of their character, not the color of their skin or their economic status.

The next year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 initiated during President John F. Kennedy's administration had been signed into law by his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, after JFK's assassination. Dr. King had earned the Nobel Prize for Peace for his unswervingly nonviolent approach to working for racial equality and economic opportunity for blacks and minorities in America.

But the sores of social and racial discontent would soon be rubbed raw, to paraphrase Charles E. Silberman's "Crisis in Black and White" (Alfred E. Knopf Inc./Random House, 1964), and could be ignored no longer.

Riots had broken out in black neighborhoods during the long hot summers of the mid-1960s, including Watts and South Los Angeles in summer 1965. Legislative victories aside, these events challenged Dr. King's leadership and nonviolent tactics. A vocal minority within the black community increasingly denounced his peaceful civil disobedience, saying it wasn't getting the job done fast enough. The so-called black power movement emerged, seeking to expedite the process by any means necessary.

Unrest in Memphis
On March 28, 1968, some of this frustration had boiled over in Memphis, too, ending what had begun as a peaceful march Dr. King held on behalf of black sanitation workers, as he was preparing to mobilize his "Poor People's Campaign." They were seeking pay and advancement opportunities equal to their white co-workers, but city management wasn't willing to negotiate. Some of the younger protesters became violent that day, breaking windows, looting stores and trashing property, and the police moved in to break it up.

When the tear gas cleared, one marcher teenaged had been shot dead.

This shook Dr. King. He called for a second protest march April 8, and was determined to keep it peaceful. It would be a real test of his ability to diffuse tense situations - including the riots - and still work toward effecting positive change. Though local, this next test of his leadership could have national implications.

This is what awaited Dr. King when he returned to Memphis that April 3.

He landed there late because his plane's takeoff had been delayed by a bomb threat. After checking into the Lorraine Motel, a non-descript two-story motor inn located in downtown Memphis, he spoke to a small group of people gathered that night at the Mason Temple Church about the continuing struggle for racial and economic equality. He assured them the goals were achievable - just maybe not in his lifetime.

'Been to the Mountaintop'
"We have some difficult days ahead," Dr. King said in the speech's stirring final minute, building to a powerful climax. "But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. 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 seeeen 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. 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."

Dr. King moved away from the podium, seemingly exhausted, as aides helped him to a seat at the rear of the stage so he could regain his composure.

The final moments
Late the next afternoon, April 4, Dr. King was getting ready to go to dinner at the home of local minister Billy Kyles with friends and colleagues, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy. As their borrowed white Cadillac waited downstairs, Dr. King and the Rev. Kyles stepped out of King's second-story room, No. 306, onto the balcony. Abernathy was just getting ready to leave the room. As Kyles started down the walkway, Dr. King turned back to his room, intending to get a coat.

At that moment, 6:01 p.m., a single shot was heard, and a .30-06-caliber rifle bullet hit Dr. King's right jaw, severed his spinal cord, and lodged in his shoulder blade. He went down on the balcony, a gaping hole on the side of his face oozing life. Kyles, Abernathy and the others rushed to his aid. They pointed toward the direction they'd heard the shot come from. Kyles called for an ambulance.

Dr. King was barely alive when he arrived at St. Joseph's hospital about 15 minutes later. Surgeons spent the next 45 minutes trying to save his life. At 7:06 p.m., they pronounced him dead.

Uneasy Aftermath
As the stunning news of his assassination spread, so did anger and rage that this champion of peace for millions of Americans had been so violently murdered by a sniper's bullet, at age 39, leaving behind a grieving widow, Coretta Scott King, and four young children, Yolanda Denise, Martin III, Dexter Scott and Bernice Albertine.

Rioting broke out in more than a hundred cities around the nation, a more extreme test of Dr. King's nonviolent strategy than ever before. His wife and many civil rights leaders, including Abernathy and Jackson - as well as Robert F. Kennedy, then running for the Democratic nomination for president in the upcoming November election - appealed for an end to the violence. They reasoned it was contrary to the ideals for which their slain leader stood, and it played into the hands of those who would continue to oppress and discriminate against minorities.

The funeral
Dr. King's family returned his body to Atlanta, where it lay in state as millions of people filed by to pay their last respects. An estimated 60,000 people - including Kennedy and fellow presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon, national and world leaders, famous friends and everyday people - attended the funeral held April 9 in and around Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King had grown up listening to his father's sermons and later preached himself.

A procession of around 200,000 people then walked behind his casket, which lay on a farmer's wagon pulled by mules, through the streets to Morehouse College, where a final service was held before burial at South View Cemetery.

Millions more watched on television as the real-life tragedy unfolded. For those who had already experienced the televised aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination and funeral not five years earlier, seeing another icon fall was all the more devastating. The country's mood was very dark. Many people, black and white, especially the young, thought if there was any innocence left alive in American society after Kennedy's murder, it died with King.

In June the nation would bury Bobby Kennedy.

The FBI, James Earl Ray, and Conspiracy Theries
In the uneasy aftermath of Dr. King's death, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which under Director J. Edgar Hoover had previously gone to great lengths to discredit King, launched what it called the most massive manhunt in U.S. history to find his killer and bring him to justice.

A week later, on April 11, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included the Fair Housing Act. Dr. King's tactical use of non-violence to effect social change had helped make the bill happen, but he didn't live to see it made the law of the land.

FBI investigators traced a fingerprint on a rifle and other evidence found near the murder scene to a petty criminal named James Earl Ray, who was wanted in Missouri for prison escape. Agents tracked him down in London a month after the shooting; he was extradited back to the States, pleaded guilty at his trial, and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Ray soon professed his innocence; several requests for a retrial were denied, and he died behind bars in 1998.

In 1978, a special committee of the U.S. House of Representatives had reported the likelihood that Ray, if guilty, had been aided by others. To this day there remains no shortage of "Who really killed King..." conspiracy theories, some implicating the FBI, the CIA, and the Memphis police. 

And most of King's closest associates and members of Dr. King's own family have never believed Ray acted alone, as Martin Luther King III, now 52 and head of the Realizing the Dream Foundation that carries on his father's work, told host Tom Brokaw in "King," an in-depth History Channel documentary on the assassination that aired in April 2008.

Along with accolades for Dr. King have come accusations over the years, perhaps proof that he was very human, an imperfect individual.

Allegations of infidelity remain unproven; accusations of plagiarism proved true. In the 1980s, Boston University determined a third of King's doctoral dissertation had been lifted, but did not rescind his degree because his original was so substantial.

But there's no denying the influence of the man. As baseball great Jackie Robinson once said, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." By that measure, Dr. King was a giant.

Ultimately, the forces of violence did not prevail in the struggle for civil rights and economic freedom. As much progress as there's been, though, there is still a long way to go. King's enduring legacy is a light that illuminates the path.

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