On April 4, 1968, just after six o’clock, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The civil rights activist was in Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers when he was shot in the jaw and had his spinal cord severed while walking to supper. After he arrived at a hospital in Memphis, his death was officially declared. Martin Luther King was 39 years old.
Martin Luther King became more concerned with the issue of economic inequality in America in the months leading up to his death. To draw attention to the problem, he organized the Poor People’s Campaign, which included a march in Washington. In March 1968, he visited Memphis in support of the mistreated African-American sanitation workers. He led a workers’ protest march on March 28 that resulted in violence and the murder of an African American teenager. King departed the city but made a promise to stage another protest there in early April.
“We’ve got some rough days ahead”, King said in his last lecture on April 3 in Memphis. “But now that I’ve reached the summit, it doesn’t matter to me. And He permitted me to climb the mountain. The Promised Land is visible when I look to the side. I might not accompany you there. The promised land will be reached by our people, though, and I want you to know that this evening.”
A sniper shot and murdered Dr. King one day after he had said those words. The National Guard sent troops to Memphis and Washington, D.C. as riots broke out in towns around the country when the news of the murder spread. He was buried in his native Atlanta, Georgia, on April 9. As King’s coffin was transported by two mules in a wooden farm cart through the streets, tens of thousands of people stood in the streets to pay their respects.
On the evening of King’s assassination, a Remington.30-06 hunting rifle was discovered on the pavement alongside a rooming house one block from the Lorraine Motel. Over the next weeks, the rifle, witness accounts, and fingerprints on the weapon all pointed to James Earl Ray, an escaped prisoner. While serving a term for a holdup, Ray, a two-bit criminal, escaped from a Missouri jail in April 1967. A huge quest for Ray began in May 1968. The FBI ultimately concluded that he had gotten a Canadian passport while using a false identity, which at the time was rather simple.
Ray was taken into custody by Scotland Yard agents on June 8 at a London airport. He was attempting to travel to Belgium, with the end intention of reaching Rhodesia, as he later revealed. At the time, Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, was governed by a white minority regime that was harsh and widely denounced. In March 1969, Ray, who had been extradited to the US, appeared before a Memphis court and admitted to killing Luther King to avoid the death penalty. A 99-year jail term was imposed on him.
Three days later, he attempted to renounce his guilty plea by asserting his innocence in King’s murder and that he had been used as a pawn in a wider plot. He stated that in 1967, he was approached by a mysterious individual named “Raoul” who recruited him into a gun-running operation. He said that on April 4, 1968, he escaped to Canada after realizing he would be used as the scapegoat in the King’s assassination. In the ensuing 29 years, Ray made hundreds of further motions for trials, all of which were turned down.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow and children publicly defended Ray and his allegations in the 1990s, declaring him innocent and raising the possibility of military and a government-led assassination plot. Conspiracy theorists believed that U.S. officials were indirectly involved. King was the focus of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession because he believed the man was communist. King was routinely wiretapped and harassed by the FBI during the last six years of his life. Before his passing, Dr. King was also under the watchful eye of US military intelligence, which may have been requested when King publicly opposed the Vietnam War in 1967. Furthermore, King was not winning many friends and allies in the Cold War-era U.S. government by calling for radical economic reforms in 1968, such as universal guaranteed annual incomes.
The Shelby County, Tennessee, district attorney’s office, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and the United States justice department have all reexamined the murder throughout the years. All of the investigations came to the same conclusion: Martin Luther King was murdered by James Earl Ray. The House committee speculated that Ray may have had one or more collaborators in a low-level conspiracy, but they were unable to find any proof to support this notion. In addition to the pile of evidence against him – such as his fingerprints on the murder weapon and his confessed attendance in the rooming house on April 4 – Ray had a clear motive in assassinating King: hatred.
He was an ardent racist who told his family and friends that he intended to assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., according to his family and friends. He died in 1998.
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