It was one of those “I remember where I was” days in modern American history. On this day, 40 years ago, James Earl Ray took the life of one of the most significant figures of the 20th century – Martin Luther King, Jr. At the height of the civil rights movement, King’s life was taken in a moment, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Here’s what happened. King had received numerous death threats due to his leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement. He had confronted the issue of death and indicated that he even expected that he would not live a long life. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, King told his wife Coretta, “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.”
Why was King in Memphis on April 4? He came to support striking African American city sanitation workers, who had walked out on the job on February 11, to protest unequal wages and working conditions. At that time, Memphis paid black workers far less than white workers.
On April 3, King addressed a gathering at the Mason Temple (World Headquarters of the Church of God in Christ). His speech, now known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address, was delivered flawlessly, as usual. The closing words of his last speech were these:
“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! [applause] And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
King was staying at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, room 306. It was a room he had occupied many times, on his trips to Memphis. He was to speak at an event that night. His last words were to noted musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that evening. He said, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
Then King walked out onto the balcony and was standing near his room when he was struck at 6:01 p.m. by a single bullet fired from a Remington Model 760 rifle. The bullet penetrated King’s right cheek, breaking his jaw and several vertebrae as it traversed down his spinal cord, severing the jugular vein and major arteries, before lodging in his shoulder. King fell backward, immediately unconscious.
Witnesses saw a man, believed to be James Earl Ray, fleeing from a rooming house across the street. Ray had rented a room there. Police found a package nearby, with Ray’s fingerprints on the package and the gun inside. Still, it wasn’t until two months later that an international manhunt culminated in Ray’s arrest at London’s Heathrow Airport.
When fellow Civil Rights activist Andrew Young rushed to King’s body, he found a pulse. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where doctors opened his chest and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. But he never regained consciousness, and was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. His autopsy would reveal that though just 39, he had the heart of a 60-year-old, due to unbearable stress.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was laid to rest five days later, on April 9, 1968. A crowd of 300,000 attended his funeral. Vice President Hubert Humphrey attended on behalf of President Lyndon Johnson, who was at a meeting on the Vietnam War at Camp David. At his widow’s request, King’s last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church was played at the funeral. In that sermon, delivered on February 4, 1968, he asked that at his funeral there would be no mention of his awards or honors, but that it would be said that he tried to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, be right on the Vietnam War, and love and serve humanity.”
James Earl Ray died 30 years later, at the age of 70, from kidney and liver failure, caused by hepatitis C, behind bars.