Accessibility links

Breaking News

Martin Luther King, Jr., Remembered on 40th Anniversary of Assassination 


American black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated 40 years ago on 4 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. His death touched off a wave of race riots across the United States. Still today, some question the official investigation blaming the killing on one man. VOA's Chris SImkins takes a look back on Dr. King's final days and the immediate impact his death had on the country.

Forty years ago, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to lead a campaign for sanitation workers protesting their low wages and poor working conditions. Still a young man at 39 years old, he had become the nation's chief civil rights leader, known for his non-violent marches and demonstrations. It was the city where he would die.

Civil rights activist and history professor Michael Honey, author of a book about Reverend King's last days in Memphis, says the leader was trying to form a unprecedented coalition linking labor and civil rights.

"He called for a general strike in the city of Memphis by workers, domestic workers, teachers, students,” Honey said. “And this would have been a tremendous high point in the civil rights movement. Nothing like this had happened in any city. It would also be a tremendous high point in the labor movement."

The night before Reverend King was killed, he delivered his final sermon in which he seemed to foresee his fate. "Like anybody I would like to live a long life," King said. "Longevity has its place. 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."

On 4 April 1968, as King was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he was shot in the neck. He died a short time later at the hospital.

Riots broke out that night in several major U.S. cities. On 9 April, more than 50,000 people attended King's funeral in Atlanta, Georgia.

Memphis police later identified suspect. James Earl Ray was arrested weeks later in London, with a fake passport. Although Ray pled guilty and was convicted, years later he retracted his confession. He said he had been only a minor player in a conspiracy. But a lengthy U.S. Justice Department investigation concluded Ray had acted alone.

King's family rejected those findings. Historian Michael Honey says 40 years later questions linger, especially in Memphis. "I think the issue for the black community was that this was never satisfactorily resolved and that there is widespread belief that it wasn't this one guy, and that other people in the state agencies may have been involved - or even the local police," he said.

The race riots that spread to more than 100 American cities lasted days, as mostly African-American neighborhoods burned. Across the country, curfews were put in place. The government mobilized some 50,000 soldiers to help quell the violence. Some 21,000 people were arrested.

Nearly 50 people died. About 2,600 were injured, and millions of dollars in property was damaged or destroyed.

40 years after King's death, many African Americans still seek his dream of equality and opportunity, especially in urban communities where King had turned his attention during his final days.