The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. changed Atlanta and the nation forever. This exclusive, interactive story – which includes never-released interviews with some of King’s closest associates – captures the events surrounding that April day. It represents the combined reporting efforts of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Channel 2 Action News and WSB Radio.
In considering the life of Martin Luther King Jr., everyone talks about April 4, but nobody talks about April 4.
Two days, actually. One year apart.
April 4, 1968, when a bullet took him down.
April 4, 1967, when he made one of his most controversial speeches.
The 365 days between would be the most trying of King’s life. The path from Selma to Montgomery had been clear and unambiguous. But the road ahead was fraught and painful. His movement was splintering. New voices mocked his creed of nonviolence. He couldn’t sleep and was suffering from depression and exhaustion.
In that 1967 speech he departed from the core mission of the civil rights movement and set himself on the path toward a more radical global perspective: he would also speak out against the war and the crippling poverty he saw across the nation.
Those 365 days would lead him to Memphis.
April 4, 1967: Manhattan
By the time Martin Luther King Jr. stepped to the pulpit of the massive Riverside Church in New York City — a Gothic masterpiece financed by John David Rockefeller Jr. — he had already won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his work as the face and spiritual embodiment of the Civil Rights Movement. But his popularity was waning as younger, more militant black leaders challenged him for power.
None of that mattered that Tuesday night in Morningside Heights. He had made it clear — having enlisted Spelman College history professor Vincent Harding, to help pen his speech — that he was going to use the pulpit to denounce the Vietnam War, which was not only taking a toll on the Vietnamese, but also poor American blacks who were being drafted and dying at disproportionate rates. This was 1967, not 1972. Anti-war fervor had not yet reached its peak.
Observers and followers of King said the speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” liberated him and removed any constraints of political correctness, political allegiance or even popular opinion.
“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice,” he told the 3,000 gathered.
For 22 minutes King talked about his ministerial obligations to expand his narrow American perspective into a global one and the three evils of racism, poverty and war.
He challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson — an ally who had pushed through the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act — to get out of a war that was “rooted in capitalism” and devote more resources and attention to the homefront. He even called for men to declare themselves conscientious objectors.
The Riverside crowd gave King a standing ovation and he was was initially pleased with the speech, satisfied that he had finally spoken out loudly against the war. But as his aides predicted, the speech was a political disaster. The war hawks in Washington hated it, just as much as the doves in the SCLC.
A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin refused to talk about it in the press. Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young distanced themselves from him. Black media that had chronicled his every step since the Montgomery Bus Boycott a decade earlier railed against him, leading The Washington Post to write that “King has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies…and… an even graver injury to himself.”
King argued that while the speech might have been politically unwise, he was “morally wise.” He absorbed the criticism quietly, but vowed to move. He had no choice.
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government,” King said at Riverside. “For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”
April 4, 1968: Memphis
In the days before King stepped out on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel at 406 Mulberry Street, he had been tired and quick to anger.
In fact, the SCLC staff had noticed that over the last three months, he had been prone to lose his temper more. The night before, he had delivered what some would call his greatest speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
But King had had no intention of speaking that night. He hadn’t even attended the rally. The crowd began calling for him, and his aides practically had to drag him out of bed and spirit him to the meeting hall. The crowd, turned out in support of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, went delirious at the sight of him.
King had been at odds with the staff and some members of the SCLC board, who saw Memphis as an unneeded distraction from their next big thing — the Poor People’s Campaign. Earlier that day he fought with Hosea Williams, after the hard-charging aide suggested they hire a field worker who did not fully subscribe to non-violence.
Now it was time for Andrew Young, the yin to Williams’ yang, to feel the wrath.
Young had been in court all day trying to get an injunction overturned so that they would have permission to march on April 8. Young hadn’t called in all day and when he finally arrived at the Lorraine, King pounced on him.
“Where have you been? Why didn’t you call and let me know what’s going on? I am the leader of this movement! You have to keep me informed,” Young said, recalling the encounter with King. “We’re sitting here all day long waiting for you and you didn’t call.”
Young, in retelling the story, said he was taken aback until he noticed a slight smile on King’s face.
King picked up a pillow and threw it at Young.
Young threw it back.
“The next thing I knew everybody was grabbing pillows. A group of 30 and 40 year old men having a pillow fight,” Young said. “Which ended up with me down between the two beds with all the pillows and everybody piling on top of me.”
When they composed themselves, they each rushed to their rooms to dress for dinner at Billy Kyles’ home.
Abernathy was still in the room when King walked out on the balcony and looked down on the men who had so faithfully followed him. There was no hint of animosity.
Just a bunch of black men laughing and playing the dozens. Andy Young and James Orange slap boxed and King told Young not to hurt the massively imposing but gentle Orange. In a nod to his generation, Jesse Jackson was wearing a turtleneck, when King playfully yelled at him to put on a tie.
Solomon Jones, a driver from the local funeral home who would chauffeur King in a white Cadillac, told King the Memphis night would get chilly and urged him to get a coat.
Before King could respond, a shot rang out.
King & America
The timing of King’s Vietnam speech proved crucial. Events like Montgomery, Birmingham and the passage of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act — things leaders like Thurgood Marshall and organizations like the NAACP helped fight for — seemed so far away and in some ways marked complete victories and certification for the movement.
But King saw, at least as early as the 1963 March on Washington, that the movement need to expand beyond anti-discrimination and into areas like economic equality. That tied into his anger over Vietnam and the wasted resources he said would be of better use at home fighting poverty.
“He was trying to regain something. He was deeply concerned about the direction of the country and his movement,” said Joseph Rosenbloom, whose latest book, “Redemption: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours,” comes out on March 27. “He was trying to revitalize the movement. He thought the war was a huge mistake and was draining resources from far more important causes. He thought that the most critical issue facing the country was poverty.
The Vietnam speech and King’s efforts to address poverty was a stark shift in his thinking and marked a sharp contrast to the optimism of the “I Have a Dream” speech just four years earlier.
“He was trying to recruit thousands of poor people and convince them to come to Washington, possibly for months, to engage in a series of protests demanding a legislative response to the problems of poverty,” Rosenbloom said. “They would need to be brought to Washington. Housed in Washington. Fed and organized. That would have to go on in a controlled fashion for an unpredictable long time. All that was an enormous task.”
Preaching through pain
About 60 people gathered in the basement of Ebenezer Baptist Church in January 1968 for a party that would celebrate King’s last birthday. He would turn 39 — the same age as Usher and Kobe Bryant, but younger then than Jay-Z, Kerry Washington and Tom Brady are now. Longtime family friend Xernona Clayton put it all together and presented him with an engraved cup.
If the birthday party served as a reprieve, it was only briefly.
King immediately got back to work planning the Poor People People’s Campaign while fighting with his own doubts.
“Over the last three months, Doc is in a shakier emotional state than he had ever been before,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Garrow. “It was a combination of exhaustion and the political pessimism.”
At that point, King had been under an intense spotlight for 12 years with nonstop travel and his mood had become increasingly despondent.
“But it was not just external pressures,” Rosenbloom said. “He suffered from chronic insomnia. He was on the road all the time and he was utterly exhausted. And physically, he wasn’t always in terrific shape.”
Jackson said at times King talked about giving it all up to spend his time writing, traveling and making speeches. Even perhaps being president of Morehouse College.
“He was trying to figure it out,” Jackson said. “He was preaching through his pain.”
But it was becoming painfully clear that the planning for the Poor People’s Campaign was not going well, even to the point where it was fracturing the already tender SCLC. Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young and James Bevel all questioned some aspect of why they were doing it.
“It was not very well organized and it doesn’t seem that it is gonna draw folks to D.C.,” said Garrow, the author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” said. “He is very much behind the 8 ball because everything is running behind.”
On Feb. 1, two weeks after his birthday party, two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning compactor in a garbage truck where they were taking shelter from the rain. Their deaths led to a massive strike, peppered with spates of violence and police confrontations.
As the impasse tightened, almost in desperation, James Lawson, the pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, called King and asked him to help put pressure on the mayor.
Path to Memphis
King saw Memphis as economic justice for the underpaid sanitation workers and argued that it all tied in to the Poor People’s Campaign. Some of the SCLC staffed begged him not to go and continue planning for Washington.
They arrived in Memphis on March 18.
At the end of his speech, almost as an impromptu ad-lib, King promised to come back and lead a march.
He returned 10 days later on March 28 to lead 6,000 protesters through the streets of Memphis. The march turned violent as protesters and marchers clashed with police, broke windows and looted stores.
“This was the first movement that we had been in that turned violent. And it turned violent because somebody paid some kids to disrupt it,” Young said.
A despondent King was rushed from the scene, painfully embarrassed at how the march turned out.
“When I saw that, I thought he would never get over this,” said King’s older sister Christine King Farris.
Rosenbloom would describe that day as the beginning of King’s lowest point, as his reputaion was at stake and he was being blamed for the violence.
But there was at least one highlight.
March 28 was also the 5th birthday of King’s youngest daughter, Bernice. They celebrated her birthday on March 29.
Bernice King was born in 1963, just as King’s profile was rising and he was on the road more.
“The first 3.5 years of my life, the relationship between the two of us was distant,” Bernice King said in a 2008 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He was away from home so much. Going into my fourth year, I began to warm up to him.”
The day after Bernice’s party, on March 30, King gathered the SCLC staff for a tense meeting. They fought him. Not only about King’s suggestion to return to Memphis, but also about the Poor People’s Campaign, which was now scheduled to start in late April.
Young didn’t want to go back to Memphis. Jackson, who was more interested in Operation Breadbasket, thought Memphis was a waste of time. Bevel wanted to focus more on Vietnam.
“They couldn’t afford the time,” Rosenbloom said. “You can question how clearly King was thinking. But he was following his instincts.”
Rosenbloom said Jackson was adamant about his disagreements, leading to a loud showdown.
“If things keep going the way they’re going now, it’s not SCLC but the whole country that’s in trouble. I’m not asking ‘support me.’ I don’t need this,” King told Jackson. “But if you are so interested in doing your own thing that you can’t do what this organization’s structured to do, if you want to carve out your own niche in society, go ahead. But for God’s sake, don’t bother me.”
Did it make sense?
King and his entourage arrived in Memphis for the third time on April 3.
R.S. Lewis, director of the most significant black funeral home in Memphis at the time, was idly sitting at a red light when a car pulled up next to him driven by James Lawson, who was his pastor at Centenary Methodist.
“Robert,” Lawson yelled. “I want you to meet Dr. King.”
Lewis agree to provide a driver and a new Cadillac to get King around Memphis during his stay. King arrived at the Lorraine Motel with the intention to rest. The march had been planned for April 8, but the mayor had won an injunction to stop it, because he feared that it would again turn violent.
King was set to deliver a speech at Mason Temple that night but begged off. He was tired. A storm was coming and tornado sirens were blaring throughout downtown Memphis.
King thought the weather would keep people away, and “he said I don’t feel like talking,” Jackson said. Jackson and Abernathy were sent to speak instead, but the crowd didn’t want them. They wanted King.
Once King arrived, Abernathy gave a long enough introduction to allow him to collect his thoughts. Photos from that night show Jackson “debriefing” King on the pulpit as they waited for Abernathy to finish.
When he stepped to the pulpit, King began his 45 minute extemporaneous speech by calling Abernathy “the best friend that I have in the world.”
Scholars who have studied King said with all of the pressures on him in the last year of his life, the possibility that he would be assassinated weighed heavily on him. On several occasions during his ministry King spoke of death and how it should not be feared.
“He was in my house in Birmingham a few weeks before Memphis,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery. “He said to me on more than one occasion that he wouldn’t live to be 40. I told him that he would be around until his beard was on the ground. But it never caused him to detour from his road toward liberation and the struggle.
That night in Memphis, his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech seems in retrospect both fatalistic and prophetic. He spoke of his own mortality and how he was at peace with dying.
“I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” King said.
At that point, King pauses briefly as a pained look blankets his face.
“But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. 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! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Drenched, emotionally and spiritually drained, King turns around and collapses in Abernathy’s arms.
King would die less than 24 hours later.
By the time they realized what happened, it was bedlam at the Lorraine Motel.
“The next few minutes, it was difficult,” Jackson said. “I am looking on the balcony and his leg on the railing. It is trauma. You can’t replicate that, you can’t plan it.”
King’s younger brother, A.D. King, was inconsolable, crying, “They got my brother.”
The hotel operator, Lorraine Bailey, had a heart attack upon seeing King and later died.
And there is the famous Joseph Louw photo from Life Magazine of Young, Abernathy and Jackson pointing to where he thinks the bullet came from while a mortally wounded King lay at their feet. A towel was draped across the right side of King’s face.
Abernathy cradled his best friend’s head while he cried for an ambulance.
The assassin’s bullet had “hit the tip of his chin and just took half of his neck off,” Young said.
The shot blew the knot of King’s necktie, which he had delicately placed moments earlier, completely off.
“I don’t even think he heard the shot or felt any pain,” Young said. “It was obvious to me that he was gone.”
Jackson called King’s wife, Coretta and told her to “take the next thing smokin’.”
Abernathy watched doctors work on King in the emergency room and when he died, identified the body.
R.S. Lewis, who had met King for the first time the day before, and who had offered his fleet of Cadillacs and drivers to King, drove a white 1966 Cadillac Superior Royale Coach hearse with a black top to St. Joseph’s Hospital to pick up King’s body to take to his funeral home.
King’s body was to be prepared in Memphis before returning home to Atlanta. His face was so mangled that there was a discussion that his funeral would have to be closed casket. But Robert Stevenson Lewis, who had but one arm, said no. He and his brother Clarence E. Lewis worked on King’s body for 13 hours, bought him a suit and placed him in an open casket. They never presented a bill to anyone.
While Memphis was preparing King’s body, Atlanta was preparing for a funeral.
Bernice King, who had just celebrated her 5th birthday with her father, had never heard the word “casket” before. When she and her family arrived at the Atlanta airport to retrieve King’s body, she asked her mother where her daddy was.
“He’s in his casket in the back of the plane. Sleep,” Coretta Scott King said.
Bernice was confused. She said she heard her father in the back breathing. Or snoring. It was the hum of the plane.
“I think she was trying to prepare me. She didn’t want me to be in shock when I am asking where is my daddy and the next thing I see is him in a casket,” Bernice King said. Later, she would ask, “How is daddy going to eat?”
“God is going to take care of that,” Coretta King said. “Mommy loves you.”
It rained on the day that King’s body was ready for viewing in Atlanta. Xernona Clayton, the loyal family friend, had helped Coretta Scott King shop for a funeral outfit and now they were getting the program together and for the first time, viewing the body.
A large crowd had already gathered outside of Spelman College’s Sister Chapel. Coretta Scott King wanted to let the crowd in, but Clayton urged her to wait.
“No,” Clayton told King. “You should see him first.”
When they got here, they were joined by several family members and Harry Belafonte and his wife. Clayton stood back, as King walked up to her husband’s body.
“He looked awful. There was a big blob on his right cheek,” Clayton said. “Red as the red clay of Georgia. I felt so pained by the way he looked.”
Clayton borrowed the facial powder of King’s mother, who was dark skinned and Belafonte’s wife, who was white, and mixed them up to make a bronze.
“Belafonte placed his handkerchief around [King’s] neck and I toned him down with the powder that I had mixed up,” Clayton said. “It made such a difference and Coretta smiled.”
President Johnson designated Sunday, April 7, as a national day of mourning.
On April 8, the march that King promised to lead commenced as scheduled. But it was Coretta Scott King at the head of it, as a tribute to her husband.
On April 9, she was back in Atlanta for King’s funeral. The cortege, with King’s body in a mule-drawn wagon, wound 4½ miles through the city, from Ebenezer on Auburn Avenue to the campus of Morehouse College. Jacqueline and Bobby Kennedy were there, as were a host of other celebs and major political figures.
Morehouse President Benjamin Mays, King’s great mentor, gave the eulogy.
“He was not ahead of his time. No man is ahead of his time. Every man is within his star, each in his time. Each man must respond to the call of God in his lifetime and not in somebody else’s time,” Mays said. “If physical death was the price he had to pay to rid America of prejudice and injustice, nothing could be more redemptive.”
By May 1968, the remaining members of the SCLC embarked on the Poor People’s Campaign and erected Resurrection City in Washington. Hundreds camped out and tried to meet with congress for several weeks. But without King, it barely made a dent.
“If Martin Luther King had lived and been able to implement and carry out that unbelievable effort, bringing hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens to Washington D.C, it would have had a profound impact on the American community,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis. “[It would have had a profound impact] on the powers that be, on the members of congress, on the President of the United States, to do something about poverty. About hunger.”
On Jan. 15, 1969, on what would have been King’s 40th birthday, Coretta Scott King announced the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center to begin the business of securing her late husband’s legacy.
“What we see beginning now is no dead monument,” she said. “But a living memorial filled with all the vitality that was his, a center of human endeavor, committed to the causes for which he lived and died.”
Coretta Scott King was one of the prime movers behind the effort to declare a national holiday in her husband’s honor.
In 1983, Sen. Jesse Helms, (R-N.C.) led a filibuster against a bill that would establish the third Monday of every January Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In November 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law. It was first observed in 1986.
Hundreds of books have been written about him. At least a dozen movies have depicted him. And everyone from rappers to the pope frequently quote him.
In October 2011, in a project funded largely by his college fraternity, a massive 30-foot statue of King was placed on the National Mall.
Barack Obama — the nation’s first black president — presided over the dedication.
ABOUT THE STORY
This package is the culmination of dozens of interviews with people who knew and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. as well as those who have studied his work. Several of the interviews were pulled from “lost” Atlanta Journal-Constitution tapes from 2008 of King associates, including his daughter Bernice King and son Martin Luther King III. Source material for the story came from the Martin Luther King Jr. Research & Education Institute at Stanford University; Taylor Branch’s “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968;” Andrew Young’s “An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America;” and John Lewis’ “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” We also interviewed David J. Garrow, the author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference” and Joseph Rosenbloom, whose latest book, “Redemption: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours,” comes out on March 27. The package also includes rare photographs, audio and video clips of King; as well as maps of civil rights sites and King’s funeral route; previously archived stories, a musical playlists honoring the civil rights leader.
You'll find much more on Martin Luther King Jr. by following the links below.
King's 1946 letter to the editor in the Atlanta Constitution
In late July 1946, the lynchings of five African-Americans in Georgia made national headlines and pricked the conscience of a Morehouse College student.
The first killing was of Maceo Snipes, an African-American World War II veteran. Snipes was killed in Taylor County, in retaliation for daring to vote in a statewide primary election. For that four white men shot him outside a relative’s home.Days later, two black couples, George and Mae Murray Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcom, were killed by a mob at the Moore’s Ford Bridge between Monroe and Watkinsville. They were murdered after Roger Malcom had a dispute with a local white farmer. Dorsey was seven months pregnant when she was beaten and shot to death.
All of this was too much for the 17-year-old Morehouse student. He penned a letter to The Atlanta Constitution in which he called out the immorality of racism and showed a burgeoning passion for social justice. The writer also referred to the murderous tactic that had led to so many lynchings across the South: black men erroneously accused of assaulting white women. He signed the letter, “M.L. King, JR.”
— Rosalind Bentley