Obit of the Day (Historical): Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated by James Earl Ray* on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was in the city to support a strike by the city’s black sanitation workers. (The strike was precipitated by the deaths of two black workers who were crushed in malfunctioning garbage truck.)
Dr. King was standing on a balcony outside of his motel room joking with Jesse Jackson (future leader of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and presidential candidate). At 6:01 p.m. a shot rang out and Dr. King collapsed onto the balcony. It was determined later that he was shot with a 30.06 caliber rifle which struck him on the right side of the face and throat.
The 39-year-old civil rights champion was pronounced dead at 7:06 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis. It was quickly determined that Dr. King was shot and killed by a “bare headed white man in his 30’s, wearing a black suit and a black tie.” He was alleged to be driving a white Mustang.
The death of Dr. King, a believer in non-violent protest that he adapted from Gandhi, sparked actions in the black community that Dr. King had fought against more than a decade. Riots broke out in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark, NJ. In Chicago 3,000 National Guard troops were marched into the city’s West and South Sides where rioting and looting had broken out. Some fires were set but the casualty rate was low and the city returned to relative calm by that Monday. (It was during the Chicago riots that Mayor Richard J. Daley infamously ordered police “to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand … and … to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city.” There were anywhere from 9 to 11 deaths over the weekend but the causes were never determined.)
Dr. King, who was born Michael Luther King, Jr. but had it changed by his father so their names would honor the Protestant reformer, was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. Following in his father’s footsteps, Dr. King decided in his junior year at Morehouse College to become a pastor.
He studied theology at Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, PA where he was one of only 6 black students in a class of 100. But his leadership ability shone through and he was elected class president - the first African American to hold the position. He also earned a fellowship for doctoral work.
He enrolled at Boston College and while in Massachusetts, met Coretta Scott, who was studying music at Antioch College. They married in 1953.The following year Dr. King was hired as the pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was 25 years old.
Then on December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.
Four days later the Montgomery Bus Boycott began and Dr. King was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. The boycott lasted 381 days, brought national attention to Mrs. Parks, segregation, and the young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (The boycott ended on December 20, 1956 after the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling declaring the bus segregation unconstitutional.)
From that time Dr. King became the face of the modern civil rights movement. He returned to his home of Atlanta in 1959 and from there with the support of organizations including the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Dr. King the push for civil rights across the segregated South.
Dr. King, and thousands of men, women, and children, would silently suffer through arrests, beatings, attacks by dogs, and blasts of fire hose water presenting to the United States and the world a non-violent response to unbridled violence and hatred.
Dr. King’s greatest moment was seen by millions. On August 28, 1963 A. Philip Randolph, the head of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, partnered with six other civil rights organizations planned a march on Washington, D.C. Dr. King spoke to the assembled crowd of 200,000 - of all races and ages - and television audiences in the millions telling them, “I have a dream…” (You can see the entire speech here.)
In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (In 1950 Ralph Bunche was the first black person to win the Peace Prize. He was given the award for his mediation in Palestine.)
The work of Dr. King and countless leader would lead directly to the passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act and the 1965 Civil Rights Act, both signed by President Lyndon Johnson. Dr. King was present at the signing of the latter.
After Dr. King’s death he received a final measure of disrespect. Georgia governor Lester Maddox refused to allow Dr. King’s body to lie in state at the capitol building. He stated that Dr. King was an “enemy of the country.” He did not close the state government in Dr. King’s honor and refused to lower flags to half-staff until he was told that it was a federal order. Governor Maddox even placed the National Guard around the capitol building in order to “protect the property of the state.” Over 200,000 mourners attended Dr. King’s funeral and there were no incidents of violence.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was buried in Southview Cemetery with his parents. Later his body was moved to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center located at the former site of his boyhood home.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the law making the third Monday of January a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King. On August 22, 2011 the Martin Luther King Memorial was opened to the public in Washington, D.C.
Note: This is a far from a full treatment of the life of Dr. King. It is a summary of his life and legacy. I know that I have left out significant moments in his life and career. There are myriad resources available detailing, in full, Dr. King’s life and legacy. OOTD recommends you search them out for more information.
Sources: NY Times obituary, NY Times assassination coverage, Chicago Tribune, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, CORE, Our Georgia History, Answers.com, Wikipedia.org
(Image of an unidentified girl walking past Dr. King’s coffin on April 9, 1968. The photograph is copyright of Harry Benson, www.harrybenson.com.)
* Although James Earl Ray was arrested and sentenced to 99 years in prison, there was later discussion that he was not either the true shooter or acting alone. Even members of the King family felt that Dr. King’s murder was part of a larger conspiracy. Mr. Ray died in prison in 1998 at the age of 60 having recanted his confession to the murder and pleading for a new trial. No evidence has been made public presenting another theory for Dr. King’s murder.
Other relevant OOTD posts:
Dr. Joe Williams - St. Louis civil rights leader
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth - SCLC co-founder and sometime critic of MLK
Clara Luper - Oklahoma civil rights pioneer (an OOTD favorite)
Rep. Katie Hall - Indiana Democrat who sponsored bill to create MLK holiday
Dan Martin - Atlanta florist who supplied flowers for Dr. King’s funeral
On this day, I recommend listening to conversations with two of the men closest to him: John Lewis and Vincent Harding.