Friday, April 4, marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the American civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In the years since his death, Reverend King has often been cited as one of the most admired Americans in history. But for many, his quest for racial equality remains unfinished. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports from Washington.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, reporter Joe Louw was in his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, watching a news report about Martin Luther King, Jr.
"When the program ended I reached over to turn the set down," he said. "That was when I heard the shot ring out and I rushed out on the balcony. I saw Dr. King lying about 40 feet away. Police poured down the street running with rifles. The scene was confused and frantic. An ambulance arrived, but there was not much anyone could do. I knew they had killed him."
Later that night, Democratic Party presidential candidate Robert Kennedy broke the news to a stunned crowd in Indiana.
"Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee," he said. "What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is 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 whether they be black."
Two months later, Kennedy also became the victim of an assassin's bullet.
King's assassination set off riots in more than 100 U.S. cities and ushered in a divisive and bitter chapter in race relations in the United States.
King had gone to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. The night before he died, King spoke to a church audience in a way that now seems eerily prophetic.
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place," he said. "But I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I have looked over and I have 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."
Forty years after his death, King's legacy of fighting for racial and economic justice remains strong.
Ron Walters is an expert on race and politics at the University of Maryland. Walters recently spoke to a group of young African-Americans at the very spot where Reverend King gave his last speech the night before he died.
"It was a moment that I will never forget because my thoughts, of course, were certainly on what he was thinking that night when he talked about the fact that he may not get to the mountaintop with us, but he has seen the possibilities of America," he said. "You know that is very much where we are trying to go in this country in race relations, to the mountaintop, and I think the impediments that keep us from getting there are the ones that we continually have to remove."
Many analysts give the United States a grade of incomplete when they assess racial progress since King's assassination.
African-Americans have made advances in education, business, entertainment and politics. In many ways, the rise of Democratic Party presidential contender Barack Obama is a powerful symbol of racial progress. At the same time, many black Americans remain mired in poverty and hopelessness in cities around the country.
Dedrick Muhammad has written a study called "The Unrealized American Dream" for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.
"It is true that Barack Obama is running for president and has a good chance to be the Democratic nominee," he said. "But it is also true that a third of black children are living in poverty today in the wealthiest nation in the world. That really should also be a major headline in the newspapers, and the sad thing is, I do not even hear that being discussed."
Martin Luther King is best remembered for his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech that rallied millions in the United States and around the world to the cause of racial equality.
"I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream," he said. "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal."
Dedrick Muhammad and others hope that the 40th anniversary of Reverend King's death will bring renewed commitment and dedication to the idea of turning Martin Luther King's dream into reality.
"Coming toward greater racial equality is not an easy process, but something that requires great work, great effort and controversial measures," he said. "America really could bridge this racial divide, but for 40 years we have been wandering around and have not come to that point and I am hoping America will, maybe during this 40th anniversary, recognize it is time to fulfill King's dream, and not just remember the dreamer."
King's status as a national hero has grown in the years since his death.
The Gallup polling organization ranked Martin Luther King the second-most admired person of the 20th century, right behind Mother Teresa and just ahead of John F. Kennedy.