The Passing of a Leader, a Legacy, a King: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination

“So it was a very very sad time. It was a time where we felt just no hope, no bright future. All of these people were our leaders. And one, it was just happening one after the other…Uh, expressing her sympathy to us because all of these leaders, especially Martin Luther King, uh were killed.” These are the words of my grandmother reflecting on the turmoil and chaos that was the year of 1968. The events of this year sent everyone on a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Although there was much that happened during this tremendous year, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. stuck out to African Americans as one of the most significant events at the time. His death shook not only the black community but the world.

April 4, 1968 marks the tragic day of Dr. King’s passing. While standing on the balcony outside his room in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in the neck by a bullet. He was rushed to the hospital but died an hour later, only 39 years old. At the time, he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. Dr. King and fellow SCLC members were then planning on leaving for Washington in order to rally Congress support for the poor, both black and white (History.com Staff). Sadly, Martin Luther King Jr. was never able to take part in this chapter of his agenda. 

Fifteen days after the assassination, James Earl Ray’s fingerprints were found on the rifle that was used to kill Dr. King. Ray was a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary and was found in the Heathrow Airport in London at the time of his arrest (Mary Ferrell Foundation). At first Ray pleaded guilty to his crime, but three days later he began mentioning aliases and that he had been set up. Amidst these claims, he was sentenced to 99 years in jail and in 1998 died of kidney disease at the age of 70.

Dr. King’s death set the world in absolute despair. Although Lyndon B. Johnson tried to persuade Americans to, “Reject the blind violence” that took King’s life, and pushed Congress the quickly pass the civil rights legislation, he couldn’t stop the mass outbreak of uproar that pursued (History.com Staff). Dr. King’s death catalyzed the start of many riots as Blacks all over the country struggled with dealing with the loss of their leader. There were more than 100 cities that participated in this violent response. However, not everyone took part in this violence.

Students at the University of Southwestern Louisiana continued Dr. King’s belief in peaceful protest. Michael S. Martin closely noted the responses of the student body in an article published in the journal Louisiana History. He quoted Albert Malveaux, African American graduate student at the time, on his initial response to finding out the dreadful news. Albert recalled that, “I didn’t even know about the assassination until a friend of mine, one of the people in the program with me, a white guy…he said something [to] the effect that ‘your friend has died.’ I said, ‘what are you talking about?’ And he said Dr. King had been shot” (Martin, 303). It’s interesting to note how the white classmate automatically referred to Dr. King has Malveaux’s friend. This is similar to how my grandmother viewed Dr. King, not as a stranger  but as if she had personally known him. Malveaux also spoke out against the use of guns stating, “If you want to get your gun, go ahead, but don’t say you’re getting it on behalf of Dr. King, because he was a non-violent person. So if you want to get your gun…all you’re doing is hurting his name” (Martin 309). These peaceful responses to Dr. King’s legacy posed as a stark contrast to the many other violent ones taking place elsewhere, but none the less they demonstrated how great of an impact Martin Luther King Jr. had on the nation.

Rioting wasn’t the only way Dr. King’s assassination was remembered. In 1991 the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, became part of the National Civil Rights Museum (Folsom, In King’s Footsteps at the Lorraine Motel). Rooms 306, where Dr. King himself stayed, and 307, where his staff stayed, have been preserved to show exactly how the room was left when Dr. King was killed. For 14 years after his death, the motel deteriorated and housed mostly prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers (Norment, Memphis Motel Becomes a Shrine). It was then bought at a foreclosure sale in 1982 for $144,000. The museum’s founder Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey believes that, “This museum is a propaganda vehicle to create more soldiers and generals to carry on our fight for equality, by teaching them and showing them what we came through, who and what our leaders were. The major thrust of the museum is that the movement did not die in 1968, that others picked up Dr. King’s work and carried on” (Norment, Memphis Motel Becomes a Shrine).

However, the new National Civil Rights Museum wasn’t met without some opposition. Jacqueline Smith was evicted from the Lorraine Motel on March 2. Ever since then she has been living outside in front of the motel protesting against the museum. She believes she was, “Kicked out unfairly and is staging an outside vigil in protest” (Jet, 12). In her eyes the motel should serve the poor and homeless and would thus be more in line with the beliefs of Dr. King.

This year America celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. The National Civil Rights Museum hosted a day of events in order to remember the legacy Martin Luther King Jr. left behind. The fact that we as a nation are still remembering Dr. King’s death speaks great lengths about the impact he had on America and the influence he still imparts on us.

Kaitlin Scott

Works Cited

1. AJC. Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The following

newspaper pages ran in the days after his death. AJC.com, 5 Apr. 1968, https://www.ajc.com/news/national/front-pages-from-atlanta-newspapers-the-days-after-mlk-death/d9TppDFqO9P5JzroCbVxyL/. Accessed 24 Apr. 2018.

2. BBC News. “The moment Americans heard Martin Luther King Jr had died – BBC News.”

Youtube, uploaded by BBC, 4 Apr. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByFMoDEGfTo

3. Blank, Christopher, The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel keeps room 306 like

it was when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot on the balcony just outside the door on April 4, 1968. Npr.cm, 4 Apr. 2014, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/04/04/298332886/sit-next-to-rosa-parks-at-the-national-civil-rights-museum. Accessed 24 Apr. 2018.

4. Folsom, Frances J. “In King’s Footsteps at the Lorraine Motel.” Boston Globe Jan 16

2016 ProQuest. 25 Apr. 2018.

5. Gore, Leada. Martin Luther King assassination April 4, 1968: What happened to shooter James Earl

Ray?. AL.com, 4 Apr. 2017, http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2017/04/martin_luther_king_assassinati.html. Accessed 24 Apr. 2018.

6. History.com Staff. Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassination. 2010,

https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/martin-luther-king-jr-assassination

7. Louw, Joseph. Civil rights leader Andrew Young (L) & others on balcony of Lorraine Motel

pointing in direction of gun shots after assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is lying at their feet. Getty Images, 4 Mar. 2018, http://www.tampabay.com/photos/2018/03/31/april-4-2018-marks-50th-anniversary-of-mlks-death/. Accessed 24 Apr. 2018.

8. Martin, Michael L. “A Peaceful Demonstration of our Feeling Toward the Death: University

Students in Lafayette, Louisiana, React to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassination.” Louisiana History, vol. 41, no. 3, July 2000. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4233675

9. Martinez, Nora, The National Civil Rights Museum Experience. Odyssey, 24 Oct. 2016,

https://www.theodysseyonline.com/the-national-civil-rights-museum-experience. Accessed 24 Apr. 2018.

10. Merry Ferrell Foundation Staff. The Martin Luther King Assassination.        https://www.maryferrell.org/pages/Martin_Luther_King_Assassination.html

11. National Civil Rights Museum, National Civil Rights Museum MLK 5oth Anniversary. Choose

901, 2 Apr. 2018, https://choose901.com/mlk50-events-honor-legacy-dr-king/. Accessed 24 Apr. 2018.

12. Norment, Lynn. “Memphis Motel Becomes a Shrine.” Ebony 04 1992: 54. ProQuest. 25 Apr. 2018.

13. “Woman from the Lorraine Motel on Sit-in Protest.” Jet Apr 11 1988: ProQuest. 25 Apr. 2018.

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Passing of a Leader, a Legacy, a King: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination”

  1. Breaking text up into paragraphs makes it easier to read, so awesome job on that! I think adding some pictures would make this even better. Also, make sure to talk about class concepts!

  2. Kaitlin,

    Your piece captivated me from the start through your inclusion of the quote from your grandfather on his memory of the 1968 time period and on Dr. King’s assassination. I also thought that your interweaving of personal anecdotes such as how your grandmother, like others, thought of Dr. King as someone she knew personally, were extremely effective in getting across certain points to readers. Upon reflecting on your site of memory, I find myself wondering how ironic it is that people who loved and followed Dr. King in his fight for civil rights responded with violence upon his assassination, even though Dr. King was known for preaching non-violence and using peaceful modes of resistance to make change in society. It think that these riots created a sharp counter memory to Dr. King and his peaceful fight to achieve civil rights in America as a result. What do you think? I know that the riots were conducted out of utmost despair, disbelief and rage that the black community had unjustly lost such an important and powerful voice in change- sometimes emotions are just hard to contain when something so horrific occurs. I created a live link to your page on mine, which is on Cesar Chavez and his 1968 fast for non-violence, as he drew a lot of inspiration from Dr. King and the peaceful methods of resistance he employed during the civil rights movement. Chavez was fighting to gain rights for migrant farm workers who were subjected to subhuman work conditions, and taught his followers to take part in the fight through non-violent modes of resistance, such as fasts and boycotts. It is incredible to see what a wide impact Dr. King made in America; he not only educated and shaped the lives of African Americans, but also other minority groups, like the Latinos, in America.

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