Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a towering figure in American history, best known for being the spokesperson and leader of the civil rights movement from 1954 through 1968. Sadly, on April 4, 1968, at age 39, Dr. King was killed by an assassin’s bullet. Here are 17 unknown facts about the events surround that day.
April 4 marks the anniversary of the assassination of revolutionary civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. It was on that day in 1968, at precisely 6:01 pm, that King, who was in Memphis, Tennessee to support a sanitation worker’s strike, was shot in the head as he turned to walk back into his motel room at The Lorraine Motel. An hour later, Martin Luther King Jr. was dead at the age of 39.
Born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams King, King, was the middle of three kids. He had an older sister, Christine King Farris, and a younger brother, A.D. King.
A gifted student, King entered college at 15 and became an ordained Baptist minister before reaching the age of 20. On June 18, 1953, he married Coretta Scott on the lawn of her parent’s house in Heiberger, Alabama.
He received his Ph.D in systematic theology from Boston University at the age of 26 (1955). That year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta had Yolanda, the first of four children. Martin Luther King III was born in 1957, Dexter Scott King followed in 1961, and Bernice King in 1963.
During the civil rights movement, King fought for social justice and eschewed violence. Instead, the great orator used his voice to criticize inequity, racial segregation, and the Vietnam War. To that end, in 1957, King became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
On August 28, 1963, King took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was here, in front of more than a quarter of a million people, that he delivered a 17-minute speech, later remembered as “I Have a Dream.”
The following year, King received the Nobel Peace Prize.
For the remainder of his short life, the civil rights activist worked tirelessly to help the underrepresented.
Who would kill such an important man? What happened? Who did it? What are the events surrounding the assassination? We’ll answer these questions and more with 17 fascinating facts about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that most people are totally unaware of.
1. King Was in Memphis to Support Striking Black Sanitation Workers
On March 29, 1968, King went to Memphis to support 1,300 black sanitary public works employees, who were on strike since February 12. On February 1, two Memphis garbage collectors were crushed to death when a garbage truck malfunctioned. The incident highlighted the poor working conditions and low wages and prompted calls for a strike.
The strike began when black workers received pay for two hours of work when they were sent home because of bad weather. White employees, however, were paid for the entire day. There was an agreement in place that all employees would be paid the same.
While the strike wasn’t getting the workers what they were looking for, it did galvanize the city’s black community–which, at 200,000, represented 36% of the city’s population.
Daily marches through downtown Memphis resulted in a loss of sales in the area of 40% to 45%.
2. Dr. King Postponed His Trip to Memphis Because of a Snowstorm
Dr. King actually visited Memphis earlier in the month, speaking on March 18 to 17,000 at Mason Temple. Newspapers were saying the strike was failing because 90 workers had crossed the picket line and were operating 90 garbage trucks. Dr. King responded by calling for a citywide march on March 22.
But that day, Memphis was hit by the worst snowstorm in history and the city was shut down. Since sanitation workers were on strike, no one was able to clear the streets of 17 inches of snow.
As a result, Martin Luther King Jr. was not able to get to Memphis. Instead, a march was planned for March 28. That rally started out peacefully, but didn’t end that way; police moved in with tear gas, nightsticks, and gunfire. Larry Payne, a 16-year-old boy, was shot to death, and 280 were arrested.
On March 23, Dr. King cancelled his trip to Africa and decided to return to Memphis to lead a peaceful march.
3. Dr. King Delivered a Prophetic Speech the Night before His Assassination
On Wednesday, April 3, King was back in Memphis and spoke at a rally, giving his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address. It would be the last speech he ever delivered.
Somewhat prophetically, King said near the end of his speech:
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. 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. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
4. Dr. King Was Assassinated by the 277th Most Wanted Fugitive in America
On the evening of Wednesday, April 4, 1968, King was standing on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel talking to friends in the parking lot below. At 6:01 p.m., as he turned to walk back into the room, he was shot in the head by James Earl Ray.
Ray was a career criminal and known racist.
What most people don’t realize is that he was 277th on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitive list at the time.
On April 23, 1967 James Earl Ray escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary. Ray worked in the prison bakery, and with the help of a fellow prisoner, escaped by hiding in a large breadbox and covering himself with a false bottom. The box full of bread was pushed onto a truck and Ray was a free man.
One year later, James Earl Ray rented a room in a boarding house under the name Eric Starvo Galt, across the street from the Lorraine Motel.
On April 4, 1968, Ray stood in the bathtub of his bathroom and balanced his rifle on a window ledge and fired; killing Dr. King.
5. Memphis Was the Second Assassination Attempt on Dr. King
An assassin tried to take down Dr. King a decade before James Earl Ray succeeded. In September 1959, King, who was just 29, was in a Harlem department store signing copies of his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.
During the signing, Izola Ware Curry, an African-American woman, approached Dr. King.
“Are you Martin Luther King?” she asked.
“Yes,” King replied.
Curry, who believed that King was conspiring against her with communists, then plunged a seven-inch, ivory-handled steel letter opener into his chest. She also had a loaded .25-caliber automatic pistol in her bra, but was stopped before she could get to it.
“I’ve been after him for six years,” Curry said at the scene. “I’m glad I done it. [sic]”
No concrete motive for the attempted killing has ever been determined.
The tip of the blade was pressed against King’s aorta. He underwent emergency surgery and remained in the hospital for several weeks.
The doctor who performed the delicate surgery said, “Had Dr. King sneezed or coughed the weapon would have penetrated the aorta …He was just a sneeze away from death.”
Later, Dr. King said he did not want to press charges against Curry, who was mentally ill. He memorialized the attack in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, the same one delivered the day before he was assassinated.
He told the audience, “I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”
6. Dr. King Was Heading out for Dinner When He Was Shot
Dr. King and his inner circle were getting ready to go when he was shot. They were invited to have dinner at the home of the Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles, a Memphis minister.
At around 6:00 p.m., King emerged from Room 306, dressed in his trademark dark suit and tie. Andre Young, his close friend and ally in the civil rights movement, was down in the parking lot and yelled up at King to grab his coat. Before King could answer, a shot rang out.
7. Dr. King Was Standing on the Balcony of the Motel When He Was Shot
Dr. King was hit by a .30-06-caliber rifle bullet that entered his right jaw, traveled through his neck, severed his spinal cord, and lodged in his shoulder blade.
Ralph Abernathy, a civil rights leader, cradled Dr. King’s head while Marrell McColough, an undercover CIA agent who infiltrated King’s circle, tried to stop the flow of blood with a towel.
King was rushed to St. Joseph’s, where doctors attempted emergency surgery.
He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. He was just 39 years old.