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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“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.


MORE: Martin Luther King, An Assassination Remembered