Most Americans know about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life’s work. But many may have missed or forgotten the full story of the American icon’s assassination 45 years ago this week in Memphis, Tenn. To mark the anniversary, we bring you 12 details about his death and its aftermath culled from sources including Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.
King was assassinated in Memphis where, as it is often noted, he was preparing for a march in support of striking sanitation workers. The deaths of garbage collectors Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed by a malfunctioning truck, precipitated that strike. In addition to recognition of their union, the workers were demanding improved safety standards to avoid similar tragedies.
The evening of April 4, King planned to have dinner with Memphis minister Samuel “Billy” Kyles and Ralph Abernathy. The two were at the Lorraine Motel when King was shot and killed and, according to Kyles’ account, remained by the slain leader’s side until he passed away. When Abernathy died in 1990, Kyles took on the distinction of being “the last remaining person to have spent the final hour of Dr. King’s life with him.” The minister ultimately became executive director of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a national day of mourning on April 7, three days after King’s death. Public libraries, museums, businesses and schools shut their doors. Even the 40th annual Academy Awards ceremony had to be rescheduled. It was finally held on April 10.
Before more than 100,000 mourners followed two mules pulling King’s coffin through the streets of Atlanta, Benjamin Mays, president of King’s alma mater, Morehouse College, delivered the eulogy at his funeral on April 9. King “would probably say that ‘If death had to come, I am sure there was no greater cause to die for than fighting to get a just wage for garbage collectors,’?” he said. It was only after another ceremony on the Morehouse campus that the slain leader’s body was initially interred at South-View Cemetery.
The investigation that led law-enforcement officials to the Atlanta apartment of James Earl Ray, a 40-year-old escaped convict who was ultimately charged and convicted in King’s murder, was the largest in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Agents and Memphis police produced evidence that Ray had registered on April 4 in a room in a boardinghouse with a view of the Lorraine Motel — the room where he fired the shots that killed King.
The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike that brought King to the city went on after his death and was ultimately successful. On April 8, Coretta Scott King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and union leaders led an estimated 42,000 people through the streets of Memphis to draw attention to the union’s requests. On April 16, negotiators finally reached a deal that meant the city recognized the union and workers were guaranteed a better wage.
Ray, King’s killer, tried to implicate a man named “Raoul” in the assassination, claiming to have been framed by the mysterious figure. Law enforcement authorities have never found anyone matching Raoul’s description.
In the song “Pride (in the Name of Love),” U2 commemorates King’s assassination with the lyrics, “Early morning, April 4/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky/ Free at last, they took your life/ They could not take your pride.” There’s one small factual error in the song, though: He was actually killed in the early evening.
Although President Johnson attended a memorial service for King, delivered remarks from the White House and declared a national day of mourning, he didn’t attend the funeral. Because of the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War, he made few public appearances in 1968. Vice President Hubert Humphrey went in his place.
In the aftermath of King’s assassination, cities across the country erupted into riots. A speech in Indianapolis by Robert Kennedy is widely credited with preventing a riot there. (After informing the crowd of the killing, Kennedy said, “Let us dedicate to ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”) A concert by James Brown is believed to have had the same soothing effect in Boston.
The Lorraine Motel, where King was killed, is now part of Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum. For $10, visitors can see the room where King was staying the day of his assassination, along with its balcony and the courtyard of the landmark building.
During King’s funeral, mourners heard a recording of the last sermon King delivered in his church. In it, he spoke of how he hoped to be remembered after his death, saying, “I’d like someone to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. ... I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. ... And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”