TIME Looks Back: The Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here is how TIME covered the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. 45 years ago.

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FLIP SCHULKE / CORBIS

“An Hour of Need” and “The Assassination” were first published in The Nation page of TIME on April 12, 1968.

The Nation

An Hour of Need

RARELY in American memory had hope and horror been so poignantly fused men’s within a single week. Rarely had men’s actions— voluntary and involuntary— seemed so ineluctably intertwined. President Johnson’s announce ment of a major peace offensive in Asia, coupled with his renunciation of another term, raised anticipation throughout the world that the long agony of Viet Nam might soon be ended.

Even as that hope blossomed, an older blight on the American conscience burst through with the capriciousness of a spring freeze. In Memphis, through the budding branches of trees surrounding a tawdry rooming house, a white sniper’s bullet cut down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., pre-eminent voice of the just aspirations and long-suffering patience of black America.

The events and personalities had a Sophoclean cast. Lyndon Johnson, the world’s most powerful political leader, abjured his power in the cause of world peace; Martin Luther King, the nation’s most ardent exponent of nonviolent social reform, was violently removed in an act of outrage that at first blush seemed to threaten the onslaught of race war. Yet each in his manner of departure achieved a stature that neither had ever previously attained. King became the canonized leader of his people’s cause; Johnson, about to surrender his political life, gained an unprecedented opportunity to work for accord between the races, within the nation as a whole and in the world beyond.

Easter Shopping. In the aftermath of King’s murder, Lyndon Johnson canceled his plans to fly to Hawaii for consultations with his military and diplomatic advisers on the delicate question of Viet Nam negotiations. Rioting and looting broke out in 62 cities from coast to coast. In manic reaction, the plunderers went about their business in an almost carnival atmosphere. Looting—”early Easter shopping,” as one Harlem resident called it— was the predominant activity, though some ghettos were burned as well.

Great streamers of acrid smoke, drifting from blazing shops in Washington‘s commercial center, twisted among the cherry blossoms near the Lincoln Memorial, where five years earlier Martin Luther King had proclaimed his vision of black and white harmony. Fires crackled three blocks from the White House, and from the air the capital looked like a bombed city. A three-mile reach of Chicago’s Negro West Side erupted in pillage and cataclysmic flames that left an eight-block area in a state of devastation as severe as that of Detroit’s ghetto last summer—yet at first Mayor Richard Daley failed, inexplicably, to impose a curfew. In Harlem, gleeful mobs cavorted and Mayor John Lindsay, though unharmed as he walked among them, was powerless to halt the orgy. Sniping, the most feared of ghetto tactics in summers past, was rare; by week’s end, riot-connected deaths totaled 19 across the nation.

Something of Shame. Swift action by civil authorities, as in Michigan, where Governor George Romney called up 9,000 National Guardsmen and Detroit’s Mayor Jerome Cavanagh clamped down a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and restraint by police in direct confrontations, kept the lid on most communities. Into Washington and Chicago poured 25,000 troops. Baltimore seemed building toward a blowup. “I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King,” said the President. “There is something of shame in this,” declared Vice President Hubert Humphrey. “This nation of law and order, which has its Presidents shot down in cold murder, its spiritual leaders assassinated, and has those who walk and speak and work for human rights beaten and killed —my fellow Americans, every one of us must resolve that we will never, never, never let it happen again.”

In the climate of sorrow and guilt that engulfed most Americans, there was an opening for an accommodation between the races that might otherwise never have presented itself. Lyndon Johnson, looking even graver than he had appeared when he announced his abdication at week’s beginning, called at week’s end for an extraordinary joint session of Congress to hear “the President’s recommendations for action —constructive action instead of destructive action—in this hour of national need.”

It is not enough, Johnson implied, to mourn Martin Luther King. His death demands expiation, as did that of John F. Kennedy. Now, as in November 1963, President Johnson seems determined to strike forcefully at the consciences of all Americans in order to wrest from tragedy and trauma the will to make a better society.

The Assassination

In causation and execution, the murder of Martin Luther King was both a symbol and a symptom of the nation’s racial malaise. The proximate cause of his death was, ironically, a minor labor dispute in a Southern backwater: the two-month-old strike of 1,300 predominantly Negro garbage collectors in the decaying Mississippi river town of Memphis. The plight of the sanitation workers, caused by the refusal of Memphis’ intransigent white Mayor Henry Loeb to meet their modest wage and compensation demands, first attracted and finally eradicated Dr. King, the conqueror of Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma.

Paradoxically, when a Negro riot ensued during his first Memphis march a fortnight ago, and Loeb (along with Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington) responded with state troopers and National Guardsmen, King felt that his nonviolent philosophy had been besmirched and wanted to withdraw. Only at the urging of his aides in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference did he consent to return.

Repairing the Image. King was more concerned with his planned “camp-in” of poverty-stricken Southern Negroes in the nation’s capital, planned for April 22. There, as he wrote in a news release that reached S.C.L.C. supporters the morning after his death, he hoped to “channelize the smoldering rage of the Negro and white poor” in a showdown demonstration of nonviolence. Memphis was supposed to be only a way station toward Washington. Yet when he agreed to continue the Memphis struggle, it was under threat of both death and dishonor.

The Eastern Airlines jet that carried King from Atlanta to Memphis was delayed 15 minutes before takeoff while crewmen checked its baggage for bombs that anonymous callers had warned were aboard. That was nothing particularly unusual for a man whose life had been threatened so often, but when King arrived in Memphis he met a different challenge. Some newspapers had emphasized during the previous week that the prophet of the poor had been staying at the luxurious Rivermont, a Holiday Inn hostelry on the Mississippi’s east bank, which charges $29 a night for a suite. To repair his image, King checked into the Negro-owned Lorraine, a nondescript, two-story cinderblock structure near Memphis’ renowned Beale Street (and conveniently close to the Claiborne Temple on Mason Street, kickoff point and terminus for the sanitation marches). At the Lorraine, King and his entourage paid $13 a night for their green-walled, rust-spotted rooms.

The Fear of Death. Across Mulberry Street from the Lorraine, on a slight rise, stands a nameless rooming house adorned only with a metal awning whose red, green and yellow stripes shade an equally nameless clientele. Into that dwelling—actually two buildings, one for whites, the other for Negroes, and connected by a dank, umbilical hallway—walked a young, dark-haired white man in a neat business suit. “He had a silly little smile that I’ll never forget,” says Mrs. Bessie Brewer, who manages the rooming house. The man, who called himself John Willard, carefully chose Room 5, with a view of the Lorraine, and paid his $8.50 for the week with a crisp $20 bill—another rarity that stuck in Mrs. Brewer’s mind.

Back at the Lorraine, King and his aides were finishing a long, hot day of tactical planning for the next week’s march—one that would be carried out in defiance of a federal district court injunction. In the course of the conference, King had assured his colleagues that, despite death threats, he was not afraid. “Maybe I’ve got the advantage over most people,” he mused. “I’ve conquered the fear of death.” King was well aware of his vulnerability. After the strategy session, King washed and dressed for dinner. Then he walked out of Room 306 onto the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine to take the evening air. Leaning casually on the green iron railing he chatted with his co-workers readying his Cadillac sedan in the dusk below.

“A Stick of Dynamite.” To Soul Singer Ben Branch, who was to perform at a Claiborne Temple rally later that evening, King made a special request: “I want you to sing that song Precious Lord* for me—sing it real pretty.” When Chauffeur Solomon Jones naggingly advised King to don his topcoat against the evening’s chill, the muscular Atlantan grinned and allowed: “O.K., I will.”

Then, from a window of the rooming house across the way, came a single shot. “It was like a stick of dynamite,” recalled one aide. “It sounded like a firecracker, and I thought it was a pretty poor joke,” said another. All of the aides hit the deck. The heavy-caliber bullet smashed through King’s neck, exploded against his lower right jaw, severing his spinal cord and slamming him away from the rail, up against the wall, with hands drawn tautly toward his head. “Oh Lord!” moaned one of his lieutenants as he saw the blood flowing over King’s white, button-down shirt.

His aides tenderly laid towels over the gaping wound; some 30 hard-hatted Memphis police swiftly converged on the motel in response to the shot. In doing so, they missed the assassin, whose weapon (a scope-sighted 30.06-cal. Remington pump rifle), binoculars and suitcase were found near the rooming house. A spent cartridge casing was left in the grimy lavatory. The range from window to balcony: an easy 205 ft.

An ambulance came quickly, and raced him to St. Joseph’s Hospital H miles away. Moribund as he entered the emergency ward, Martin Luther King Jr., 39, was pronounced dead within an hour of the shooting. His death was the twelfth major assassination and the most traumatic in the civil rights struggle since 1963.

South Toward Home. The flurry of Negro outrage that followed the murder in Memphis was conducted mostly by high-spirited youths—and was more than compensated for in solemn grief. As soon as he learned of the shooting, Atlanta’s Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., one of the South’s best-accredited white civil rights advocates, called Mrs. Coretta King—who only last January had undergone major surgery—and arranged a flight to Memphis. At the Atlanta terminal, Allen received word that King had died at the hospital, and he broke the news to the widow in the foyer of the ladies’ rest room. Mrs. King returned to the family’s modest home on the edge of Atlanta’s Vine City, a middle-class Negro neighborhood, where the phone was already ringing with calls from across the country. On hand to help answer was Mrs. Eugene McCarthy, wife of the Minnesota Senator, who had long worked with Mrs. King in ecumenical church affairs. One caller was New York’s Senator Robert Kennedy, who had come to King’s aid in 1960 when he was in jail for his Atlanta sit-ins. R.F.K. promised to send a plane to transport the leader’s body back to Atlanta.

To many whites, the subsequent mourning might have seemed unbearably emotional. In Memphis, before it was carried south toward home, King’s body lay in state at the R. S. Lewis & Sons Funeral Home in an open bronze casket, the black suit tidily pressed, the wound in the throat now all but invisible. Many of those who filed past could not control their tears. Some kissed King’s lips; others reverently touched his face. A few women threw their hands in the air and cried aloud in ululating agony. Mrs. King was a dry-eyed frieze of heartbreak. At the funeral this week, to be attended by many of the nation’s and the world’s great men, her composure will be hard to match.

Highest Priority. For all the sense of personal loss that pervaded the nation with his death, Martin Luther King’s heritage of nonviolence seemed to have endured its architect’s demise. Those who predicted that racial pacifism had passed with him were contradicted last week from Harlem to Watts, in Northern ghettos and Southern grit towns, where black leaders and youths in great numbers took to the tense streets and urged their brothers to “cool it for the Doc.” Mississippi’s Charles Evers curbed a Jackson rising with Kingly oratory. Even such hardcore militants as Harlem Mau Mau Leader Charles 37X Kenyatta and Los Angeles’ Ron Karenga, the shaven-skulled boss of “US,” manned sound trucks and passed resolutions calling for calm. Yet in the unhappy racial climate of the U.S. today, that forbearance could unravel with calamitous speed.

If the murder of Martin Luther King is not to further polarize the racism, both black and white—decried only last month by the President’s riot commission—the nation will have to accept the need for new programs, new laws and new attitudes toward the Negro. As the commission concluded, “There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation’s conscience.”

*Lead, lead, lead me on to the Land, Oh, oh, oh, take my hand, Precious Lord, And lead your child on home.

Martin Luther King Jr.

AP

MORE: Martin Luther King, An Assassination Remembered

36 comments
4jhamilton_hall
4jhamilton_hall

@TIME I'll never forget the sight of the smoke in the valley as the stores burned.

jmac
jmac

A man of peace.  Contrast that to the right-wing uprising of today and their love of guns and it hits home what a remarkable thing he did with the help of a Southern president.  May they both rest in peace.   

fitty_three
fitty_three

This would be a great day for the GOP to finally lend some legitimacy to their attempt to open their party up to minorities by atoning for Southern Strategy.  

Make Mehlmans' words true.

curt3rd
curt3rd

You realilze that the Republicans spearheaded the way on civil and voting rights for minorities and women.

Sue_N
Sue_N

@53_3 Never gonna happen. The party is hanging on by a thread, and that thread runs through the South. Angry old white people are all it has left, and it can't afford to lose them.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@curt3rd Nope those would be what are now Democrats. The Republicans seized on Southern bigotry to establish themselves as the primary party in the South. Or have you forgotten Gingritch and his coded race baiting to win the South Carolina primary.

TyPollard
TyPollard

@curt3rd 

That has nothing to do with this current version of the Republican party. 

Lincoln wept.

curt3rd
curt3rd

Oh thats clever. Did you just call all Republicans racist. Ive never heard that one before

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@curt3rd I realize that to the average GOP voter it doesn't matter. Think we'd have all these claims of secret Muslim and calls for insurrection if he was white?

curt3rd
curt3rd

I never say Obama was elected only because his color.  You do realize he is mixed. 

curt3rd
curt3rd

They gonna put yall back in chains

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@curt3rd Yes because Obama was only elected because he was a minority. Keep telling yourself that and keep losing elections. Enjoy your parties trip to the dustbin of history.

curt3rd
curt3rd

Race baiting? Thats funny.  The most effective race baiting Ive seen in an election would be when Obama got relected.

Sue_N
Sue_N

@curt3rd No, I believe what I see and hear around me. I'm from a Southern state, and the racism is appalling. It is also blatant.

curt3rd
curt3rd

Guess I didnt see it. Not a site I go to. You have a nice day. I have to go.

curt3rd
curt3rd

Not sure what you are talking about. I just browsed the website and didnt see any racist remarks.

curt3rd
curt3rd

I hear this in the liberal media all the time but what racial resentment are you talking about?  I realize that if you repeat something over and over people start to believe it but doesnt make it a fact.

TyPollard
TyPollard

@Sue_N @curt3rd 

This "debate" amuses me because it highlights how out of touch the base of the Republican party is. Their lack of self awareness of their racial resentment pushes minorities and women further away with their insanity.


curt3rd
curt3rd

What happened is that you believe everything the liberal media tells you

fitty_three
fitty_three

@curt3rd  

You stand in total ignorance of GOP political history from 1970 to the present.

How stupid are you, curt3rd?

Are you having a "brake down" or something?

Marine
Marine

@TyPollard @curt3rd Labels that is all you do is label and identify via labels.  Obama is a black man!  How proud to state he is a black man, when in fact he is a mixed race man.  Talk about myopic views of Republicans, the Democrats can't say anything with out prefacing it with a label of race.

I don't believe for one minute that Obama is a bad president because he is a "black Man", I believe he is a bad president in spite of his race, more factually he is a liar and a fake, and do I wish his communist handlers that are protecting him would give the american people a chance to kick him out office.  But the lies continue and the rank and file stupid liberals and progressives are loving the destruction of America.

TyPollard
TyPollard

@curt3rd 

Until the Republican party deals with the fact that the have purposely exploited race bace fears particularly in the South since the 1970s up until this last election they will never gain support of people of color and good people that reject fear based campaigns. 

The Republican parties problems are systematic and you are a symptom. You are hurting your party.

curt3rd
curt3rd

Not fixated on race but the news media does throw the race card out there every chance they get as if every Republican owns a slave plantation.  Also, you act as if there are no bigots among Democrats.  Im pretty sure Ive never heard of a Democrat turning down a vote.

TyPollard
TyPollard

@curt3rd 

What part of NO don't you understand?

In fact there are many issues that I don't agree with OUR President.

You seem to have a blind spot and it seems to fixate on race.

curt3rd
curt3rd

So..... everyone that doesnt agree with Obama is racist?

TyPollard
TyPollard

@curt3rd 

No, but there are many racists that are going apoplectic because a black man is President.

The Republicans have welcomed these bigots into their base. They left the Democratic Party after Lyndon Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act. The South's resentment has turned a once reliable Democratic block into a Republican stronghold. The good news is that even that is slowly changing due to demographic shifts. 


curt3rd
curt3rd

Why, because whoever doesnt agree with Obama is abviously a racist?