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.
8. Jesse Jackson Was Also on the Balcony When King Was Shot
Jesse Jackson was one of King’s closest aides and part of his entourage in Memphis when he was assassinated. In fact, Jackson was with the icon when he was shot.
According to Jackson, King’s last words before being shot were spoken to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform later that night at an event with Dr. King: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
After uttering those words, King was shot. Jackson said after the shooting that he was the last person to cradle the head of the civil rights leader as he lay bleeding on the balcony.
The next day, Jackson appeared on TV from Chicago still wearing the shirt he said was stained with the blood of Dr. King; he was too traumatized the remove it. Some associated with the late Dr. King believe that Jackson exaggerated or lied about his role after the assassination.
While Jackson continues to stand by his version of the events that day, he no longer says he “cradled” Dr. King’s head, instead saying he “reached out” for him.
9. Riots Swept Major Cities after Dr. King’s Death
King’s death triggered more than 100 riots across the U.S., including some in Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Baltimore; Louisville; and Kansas City.
Damage in Washington exceeded $27.0 million, or more than $156.0 million today.
Altogether, 43 people were killed in the violence, approximately 3,500 were injured, and 27,000 were arrested.
The riots only ended when over 58,000 National Guardsmen and army troops joined local state and police forces.
The week of riots has been said to have been the greatest amount of social unrest to occur in the U.S. since the Civil War.
10. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Funeral
President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national day of mourning on April 7.
On April 8, Dr. King’s funeral was held at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Tens of thousands of mourners lined the streets of Atlanta to watch his casket be carried by two mules to Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, for a public memorial service.
A week later, the Memphis sanitation strike ended with the city council agreeing to boost workers’ wages and improve working conditions.
11. James Earl Ray Was on the Run for Two Months
After assassinating Dr. King, Ray remained on the run for two months. He was captured trying to leave England using a fake Canadian passport on his way to white-ruled Rhodesia. He was extradited to Tennessee and confessed to assassinating King on March 10, 1969 (Ray’s 41st birthday).
Ray recanted his confession three days later and alleged that a man named “Raoul,” whom he met in Montreal, was the mastermind behind the assassination.
On March 10, 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to King’s murder and was sentenced to 99 years in Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. No testimony was heard in his trial.
The evidence against Ray shows he was involved in Dr. King’s murder. Witnesses saw him running from the boarding house carrying a bundle that contained the rifle used to kill Dr. King (which his fingerprints were found on), a scope, and a pair of binoculars.
12. The Convicted Murderer Escaped Again
Later in 1969, Ray and six other convicts escaped from prison. He became the 351st Most Wanted Fugitive in the U.S. at that time.
He was recaptured three days later. And another year in prison was tacked onto his original sentence, bringing it to 100 years.
James Earl Ray died on April 23, 1998 at the age of 70.
13. Conspiracy Theories about Who Really Killed Dr. King
Not everyone is convinced that Ray killed Dr. King or acted alone.
In 1992, Ray published the book, Who Killed Martin Luther King, Jr? The True Story by the Alleged Assassin, giving his version of events.
In it, Ray suggests there was a government cover-up.
While the case was not reopened, a special congressional committee reported in 1978 that in all likelihood, Ray did not act alone.
In March 1997, Ray met with King’s son Dexter and said, “I had nothing to do with shooting your father.”
King’s widow and family say they believe that Ray is innocent and the assassination was part of a broader conspiracy. The King family and other civil rights leaders believe the FBI’s obsession with Dr. King (surveillance, lies, and denunciation by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover) made him a target for assassins.
Coretta Scott King believed a conspiracy led to her husband’s death, maintaining that belief up until she passed away in 2006.
14. Jury Rules Local, State, and Federal Governments Liable for King’s Death
In 1999, Dr. King’s family filed a civil suit. A Memphis jury ruled that the local, state, and federal governments were liable for King’s death.
The jury found the mafia and various government agencies “were deeply involved in the assassination … Mr. Ray was set up to take the blame.”
“There is abundant evidence of a major, high-level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband,” Coretta King said following the verdict.
Little came of the outcome. The Kings only sought $100.0, and Ray was not exonerated. On top of that, no officials or agencies were named in the suit, so no defense or evidence was presented or refuted by the government.
15. Other Black Leaders Concurred with the Jury’s Decision
“I would not accept the fact that James Earl Ray pulled the trigger, and that’s all that matters,” said Andrew Young, a former U.N. ambassador and Atlanta mayor who was at the Lorraine Motel with King when he was shot.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, noted, “I think there was a major conspiracy to remove Doctor King from the American scene. I don’t know what happened, but the truth of what happened to Dr. King should be made available for history’s sake.”
James Brevel, a friend and colleague of Dr. King, was a little more straightforward in his approach, saying, “There is no way a ten-cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man.”
16. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park
The bodies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King are interred at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta Georgia. The 35-acre site consists of several buildings, including King’s childhood home and the original Ebenezer Baptist Church where he was baptized and where both he and his father were pastors.
The visitor center also contains a museum that chronicles the American Civil Rights Movement.
17. The Lorraine Motel is Part of the National Civil Rights Museum
King was booked in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Owner Walter Abernathy, who was there when King was assassinated, said that King and his entourage used to stay in Room 306 so often that it was known as the “King-Abernathy suite.”
A wreath on the second floor balcony marks where Dr. King was standing when he was assassinated.
The Lorraine Motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum complex is made up of three buildings, the former Lorraine Motel and two adjacent buildings.
The museum officially opened to the public on September 28, 1991.