The Assassination of Martin Luther King – a summary

On April 4, in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. James Earl Ray, a white supremacist, was subsequently arrested for the crime and convicted to 99 years in jail.

On April 3, 1968, on his way to Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King’s plane was delayed by a bomb threat. But that evening, having duly arrived in Memphis, King delivered what would be his last speech, known as the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, from within the Mason Temple, headquarters of the Pentecostal ‘Church of God in Christ’. Outside a thunderstorm blew up as King addressed his enthusiastic audience: “I have been to the mountain top and I have seen the Promised Land… 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.”

King, with his friend, the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, was staying at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, in room 306. The following evening, April 4, at 6 p.m. King, having had a meeting with Abernathy and Jesse Jackson, stepped out onto the second floor balcony and was shot by a sniper. The single bullet shattered his jaw, broke his neck and severed his jugular vein. Abernathy raised the alarm and King was rushed to hospital but was pronounced dead soon after 7 p.m. He was 39 years old.

Despite appeals for calm, riots broke out in over 100 cities, from Washington DC to Chicago.

James Earl Ray

James Earl RayTwo months later, an escaped convict from the Missouri State Penitentiary and white supremacist, James Earl Ray, was apprehended at London’s Heathrow airport using a false Canadian passport, trying to board a plane for South Africa. Extradited back to Tennessee, Ray was arrested for the murder of King. On the advice of his lawyer and in order to avoid a trial by jury and possible death sentence, Ray confessed. He was sentenced to 99 years imprisonment.

Ray later withdrew his confession, claiming he was the scapegoat of a wider conspiracy, and fought for a trial that would clear his name. He escaped prison in 1977 only to be caught within three days and have an additional year added to his sentence. In 1997 Ray’s claims of innocence were bolstered by the support of King’s son, Dexter. But Ray never got his trial and he died in prison, aged 70, in April 1998, thirty years on from the assassination of King. Following his death, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, declared, “America will never have the benefit of Mr Ray’s trial, which would have produced new revelations about the assassination…as well as establish the facts concerning Mr Ray’s innocence.”

Black History in an hour2Rupert Colley
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