On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 39, was shot to death in Memphis by an escaped convict, James Earl Ray.
Dr. King, the acclaimed civil rights leader, arrived in Memphis on April 3 and delivered what would be the final speech of his life, now known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address, in which he spoke of his own mortality.
“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 looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
The next day, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel reportedly speaking with the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who stood below in the parking lot, Dr. King was shot. As The New York Times described the scene,
“The Rev. Ralph W. Abernathy, perhaps Dr. King’s closest friend, was just about to come out of the motel room when the sudden loud noise burst out. Dr. King toppled to the concrete second-floor walkway. Blood gushed from the right jaw and neck area. His necktie had been ripped off by the blast.”
An emergency surgery failed to save Dr. King’s life. He was declared dead about an hour after being shot.
News of Dr. King’s death soon spread throughout the nation. At a campaign rally, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a strong supporter of civil rights and a Democrat running for president, commemorated Dr. King in an address.
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black,” he said.
(Just more than two months later, Mr. Kennedy would also be killed by an assassin’s bullet after a campaign appearance in California.)
Read more about how the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. still applies today in