It’s been 49 years to the day that civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
King, a defender of nonviolence in the fight against racism, was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. The assailant, James Earl Ray, shot and killed him from another hotel nearby. King was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead soon after arrival.
The reverend had delivered a stirring, yet eerily prophetic speech at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis the night before.
“I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you,” King told the audience, “but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And 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.”
At the time, 39-year-old King was in town with the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he established, to support sanitation workers on strike over unfair wages. He saw the link between the struggle for economic equality and civil rights, saying in a 1961 speech, “The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement … and the Negro freedom movement. Together, we can be architects of democracy.”
Just five years prior to his assassination, King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963. The following year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent campaign against race-based discrimination.
King’s killing sparked riots in more than 100 cities across the nation, including Washington D.C., Baltimore, Detroit and NYC.
Former Denver radio host Lorenzo “Larry” Hammons recalled the moment he received the Associated Press breaking-news report that the civil rights leader had been shot and killed.
“I went back to the newsroom, preparing for my newscast,” Hammons, 79, told local station KUSA. “I [didn’t] know if I could do it. … You had your people who were antagonistic [saying] ‘I’m glad he’s dead. And then some were sympathetic. It ran the gamut.”
As for King’s killer, Ray fled to Canada following the assassination where he hid out for about a month. He was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport, however, after a ticketing agent was tipped off by the fake name displayed on his passport, AL.com reported.
Ray was extradited to Tennessee, where he confessed to King’s murder. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He later recanted his statements, however, claiming he was a peripheral part of a larger plot to kill the civil rights icon. Ray died in jail at age 70 on April 23, 1998.