Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee. This act incited riots across the country and began a deradicalization of the public view of King’s agenda and tactics that has continued to this day.
King was in Tennessee to support the Memphis Sanitation Strike. A coalition of African-American workers had walked out on their jobs in early February to protest dangerous working conditions and unequal pay. They were spurred to strike by the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed in a garbage compactor on February 1. The mayor refused to meet with workers and declared that the strike was illegal.
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King first visited Memphis on March 18, about a month after the strike began. He visited again in late March. A demonstration held on March 29 took a turn for the worse when protesters broke windows in the area. The response from law enforcement was severe. They used batons and tear gas to subdue the crowd. A 16-year-old named Larry Payne was shot and killed in the tumult. Payne’s death was never officially solved, although it’s believed he was shot by an officer after being accused of looting.
King returned to Memphis on April 3, scheduled to give a speech at a rally for the striking workers. On his way there, his plane was delayed for a few hours—a bomb threat had been called in against King, and the plane had to be thoroughly searched to ensure his and the other passengers’ safety.
When he arrived, King gave a seemingly prophetic speech, entitled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”. In it, King warned his fellow civil rights activists that he may not be around to see racial equality. He said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain… and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.”
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That night, King returned to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. He had regularly stayed at the motel, in the same room, during his time in Memphis. King was standing on the balcony by his room when he was shot by James Earl Ray at 6:01 P.M. on April 4, 1968. He died an hour later at a nearby hospital. King was only 39 years old.
King’s death led to rallies alongside riots, dignified mourning alongside chaos. President Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Bobby Kennedy, and James Farmer Jr. along with other civil rights leaders attempted to quell the violence in response to King’s death, with varying success.
Respect and admiration for King, especially among African-American communities, meant that the reaction to his death was intense. Although King had been critiqued in his lifetime for both being too radical and too moderate, his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement could not be denied. King, with the other members of the “Big Six”, was instrumental in beginning to bring an end to segregation of public spaces. King was also a key voice in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, sex, color and national origin. It also prohibited a number of voter registration requirements which disproportionately affected men and women of color.
Even after his death, King continued to inspire change. The Civil Rights Act of 1968, which protected all people’s rights to equal housing opportunities, had been in the works for over two years. Riots after King’s death, in combination with the 159 riots that took place the summer before his death, pushed Congress to move quickly.
Today, King is best remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He began his quest for racial equality early, with a letter to the editor of The Atlanta Constitution published when King was only 17. King’s faith was a driving force in his life, from his doctorate in theology to acting as much of the impetus for his work towards equality. During the course of King’s too-short life, he supported workers, peace, nonviolence and wrote some of the most famous essays and speeches in American history, including the striking Letter from a Birmingham Jail and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”.
Featured photo: Alchetron