Legendary civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., until he was fatally shot on this day in 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, was a preacher who used the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience to fight for equality and justice.
Memphis, Tennessee. He had come to lead a peaceful march in support of striking sanitation workers.
News of King’s death sparked racial violence, leading to the death of more than 40 people nationwide. King had, in the year in which he died, expressed worry over the slow pace of civil rights in America and the rise in criticism from other African-American leaders.
He had embarked on a series of demonstrations and gone through jail, apart from being threatened with death. He had made plans for another march on Washington to revive his movement and bring attention to scores of issues before he was murdered.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. was at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church when he heard of his son’s demise. Here’s what he wrote about his son’s death:
In April 1968, my sons went to Memphis to help organize a struggle by the city’s sanitation workers to achieve better wages and working conditions. I wondered about M.L.’s involvement in this, whether or not he was spreading his concerns and his energies too thin. But again he was right. There could be no real separation between exploiting a man because of his color and taking advantage of his economic condition to control him politically. Exploitation didn’t need to be seen only in terms of segregation. It involved all people, white and black, in the continuing human drive toward freedom, toward personal dignity within a just society. In Memphis, M.L.’s joint efforts with the workers brought out the old charge that he was, inside, more Communist than Baptist, which may have been the silliest thing anybody ever said about any person in America.
M.L. had been able to convince his brother, who was extremely skeptical in the beginning, that he too could make a difference in the kind of America that would enter the twenty-first century. The nation could be changed. The cracks in the armor of racist attitudes were visible all over the South. Maybe the time had been ripe before, but M.L. could see that now was an excellent moment in history to move a nation beyond itself. He sensed that Americans would respond emotionally to what he was now doing, that their passions could be cooled, then turned around into a force that would make the country into the place it should always have been. We have the resources, he would explain to me. We have the means, and the human energy needed is at its peak. . . .
The tension of those months took a heavy toll on Bunch, who was always aware of the pressure both the boys were under in their daily lives. The sound of a telephone, our doorbell ringing, any call that brought with it some news, edged up on us like a series of loud, sudden alarms. M.L. knew he had to share with his mother the changing nature of events as they involved him. Each moment he was away, out of touch with her, became an eternity of waiting for the next indication of any kind that he was all right.
He came to Atlanta and had dinner one evening with his mother and me. Some of the things he’d told me earlier came as no surprise, but both of us understood how difficult the information was going to be for Bunch to handle. Several reliable sources, both private and from within the federal government, concluded that attempts would soon be made on M.L.’s life. Money was involved. Professional killers were being recruited.
After dinner, the three of us sat out on our patio and enjoyed the late-setting sun of a warm, clear evening. Had I chosen M.L.’s words, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so blunt. He felt, though, that out of respect for his mother, he couldn’t be less than candid with her. “Mother,” he said, “there are some things I want you to know.”
She didn’t want to listen, not then, on that quiet Sunday when it was so good to laugh about childhood, and remember tears easily replaced with laughter back when everything seemed so much less dangerous.
“There’s a chance, Mother, that someone is going to try to kill me, and it could happen without any warning at all.” M.L. said this quickly, then stood up and walked to the far end of the patio. We sat silently, knowing that for this moment at least there couldn’t be any words. The same emotions that caused Bunch and me to urge M.L. to leave the movement more than ten years before were all still there. But saying these things now could bring no relief, only an intensity to the suffering we all carried. The great weight of that, I still believe, came from the certainty all of us had that what M.L. had chosen to do was unquestionably right.
We had been aware of the dangers, each out of our own experiences with the South we knew—M.L., his mother and I. A time had come. To avoid it was impossible, even as avoiding the coming of darkness in the evening would have been impossible. But word was moving through our part of the world. People were reporting conversations overheard in restaurants, in taverns, on street corners, that indicated serious efforts to plot against M.L. as a leader of this movement that was changing so much in America so quickly. Police departments had been alerted. The talk of hired killers being on the loose and following M.L. was now past the stage of rumor and hearsay. Police officers who had never been in sympathy with our cause were nevertheless concerned about anything happening to my son in one of their towns or cities. It simply wouldn’t have looked good, I suppose, for all these law-and-order advocates to be unprepared for lawbreakers whose intention was to commit murder.
“But I don’t want you to worry over any of this,” M.L. said, returning to his mother’s side. “I have to go on with my work, no matter what happens now, because my involvement is too complete to stop. Sometimes I do want to get away for a while, go someplace with Coretta and the kids and be Reverend King and family, having a few quiet days like any other Americans. But I know it’s too late for any of that now. And if mine isn’t to be a long life, Mother, Dad, well then I respect that, as you’ve always taught us to respect it as God’s will.”
We ached when he left that evening, deep inside, and though we tried to comfort each other with small talk about neighbors and church folks and even our earliest hours together, nothing could remove the unspoken pain we were sharing.
M.L. went back to Memphis, and Bunch was cheered by the consideration he and A.D. showed for her in this difficult time by calling during the day, just to assure her things were going fine. They seemed closer to each other now than at any time while they were growing up. A.D. grew strong in his role as brother. M.L. could now depend on him as never before, and even with all his trusted and valuable staff, the presence of his family in A.D. kept his spirit up so much of the time when this, more than anything else, was needed. They would both be on the phone with their mother, laughing and riding each other about their huge appetites and what they were doing to their respective waistlines. But that did not stop M.L. from saying, “Mother dear, I will be in Atlanta on Saturday, and I want you to cook some barbeque for me. I’ll come to your house for dinner.” It must have seemed that with all the power that affection generated, there would be some haven of safety.
A.D. now had found his calling. He was firm in his own sense of ministry, confident both in what he could and could not do. He was not his brother, and not his father either, but now it was finally clear that he was going to be the finest Alfred Daniel Williams King the world would ever know.
Bunch was in good humor as we drove to Ebenezer that Thursday evening of April fourth, 1968, although our Ebenezer family had been saddened during the week by the unexpected death of Mrs. Ruth Davis, who had been one of M.L.’s Sunday school teachers, and the passing, in Detroit, of Mrs. Nannien Crawford, a trustee of the church. The next week, Mrs. Crawford’s daughter died, and I knew it was my responsibility to preach the funeral of each of the members, and God gave me the strength to do what I had to do. The boys had called Bunch twice before noon, just to pester her, they said. M.L. was going to speak that night, and he wanted more than anything else for his mother to know that she shouldn’t take the television reports of the danger he was in too seriously. Things were shaping up much better than he had expected. Several Negro police officers were looking after him, even during their off-duty hours. For the moment, anyway, there seemed very little to worry about.
Ebenezer is a busy church, and we were there almost every evening for a scheduled activity. When we arrived at the church, Bunch and I found our car’s path into the parking lot next to the church blocked by a driver who kept honking the horn and pointing to me as she yelled something neither of us could understand because her car window was up. I motioned for her to roll it down, but several other cars were now backed up along Auburn Avenue and the woman suddenly pulled away, thinking, I suppose, that we’d understood what she was trying to tell us. I parked, and Bunch and I rushed into the church building. We went upstairs to my study without exchanging a word, and I turned on the radio near my desk. M.L. had been shot, an announcer was saying, and he’d suffered a very serious wound.
I turned to Bunch. She was calm, but the tears had started pouring down her face. No sound came, though. The crying was silent as we waited for more specific news. I began praying, filling the study with my words. Soon more news had been received by a local radio station that indicated M.L. was hurt but still alive. Another report came through, saying the bullet had struck him in the shoulder, and I heard myself asking, “Lord, let him live, let him be alive!” But moments later the newscaster had a final, somber bulletin: Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot to death while standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Again, I turned to Bunch. Neither of us could say anything. We had waited, agonizing through the nights and days without sleep, startled by nearly any sound, unable to eat, simply staring at our meals. Suddenly, in a few seconds of radio time, it was over. My first son, whose birth had brought me such joy that I jumped up in the hall outside the room where he was born and touched the ceiling—the child, the scholar, the preacher, the boy singing and smiling, the son— all of it was gone. And Ebenezer was so quiet; all through the church, as the staff learned what had happened, the tears flowed, but almost completely in silence