On this day in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. is felled by a bullet to the head at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, at 6:01 p.m. CST. He was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he died an hour later. James Earl Ray, a white drifter and petty criminal, had simply raised a bathroom window at the rear of Bessie Brewer’s Rooming House adjacent to the motel, aimed a Remington Model 760, .30-06 caliber rifle across the street, and fired.
Dr. King was born to a Baptist minister and his church organist wife in Atlanta, GA. Becoming a Baptist minister himself, King swiftly evolved into a strikingly effective activist and the most visible spokesperson and leader of the American civil rights movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.
King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott begun by Rosa Parks and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, serving as its first president. With the SCLC, King led a massive series of boycotts, protests and non-violent demonstrations, inspiring young and old in the like-minded necessity for racial equality and social justice in the US. He was a principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, seen by many as the most stirring oratory in English language history.
In 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance, and continued his campaign for peace and justice, traveling throughout the US; despite his peaceful approach, he was jailed not less than 29 times. In the final years of his life, he expanded his focus to include opposition toward poverty and the Vietnam War, alienating many of his liberal allies with a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam.”
In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, DC, to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated. King’s death was followed by riots in as many as 172 US cities, and two months later, Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, a King supporter, was also murdered. Many historians and observers hold the very absence of these men and the perceived lawlessness in the US at the time helped ensure the victory of Richard Nixon that November.
For his part, James Earl Ray confessed to the assassination on March 10, 1969. On the advice of his attorney, Ray took a guilty plea to avoid a potential death penalty. He was instead sentenced to a 99-year prison term, and recanted his confession three days later. Ray died in prison on April 23, 1998, at the age of 70 from kidney and liver failure, caused by hepatitis C; he was still actively seeking a new trial.
Eminently quotable, the most searing and profound words of King still ring true at a time when to many our nation appears rudderless, rude and without moral bearing: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”