Almost 50 years later, society is still feeling the the effects of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. He was on the balcony of his Memphis, Tennessee hotel room when James Earl Ray fatally shot him in the face. Dr. King fell unconscious immediately, his vertebrae and cheekbones violently shattered, and was rushed to a hospital where he died an hour later at the age of 39.
The murder of Dr. King sent the nation into a frenzy. Riots broke out in over a hundred different cities as the American people tried to cope with the loss of such an influential figure. What happened immediately following the MLK Jr. assassination would be a mix of praise and criticism, dividing the nation and triggering debates about the fight for equality.
However, one thing was certain - Dr. King would be remembered for not only his pivotal role in the civil rights movement, but also for his powerful words that stood at the precipice of change.
Martin Luther King Jr. Was Pronounced Dead At St. Joseph's HospitalPhoto: Nobel Foundation/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Immediately after being shot on the balcony, Dr. King's friend Reverend Ralph Abernathy rushed out from their hotel room to find King unconscious. Dr. King was rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital, but he never woke again. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 pm.
The bullet went through Dr. King's right cheek and stopped at his shoulder, shattering his jawbones and some of his vertebrae in the process. It also cut through major arteries and his jugular vein, hitting with such a force that his tie was torn off.
James Earl Ray Fled The Country, But Was Caught Two Months LaterPhoto: FBI / Wikimedia Commons
Prior to killing Dr. King, James Earl Ray had been serving a 20-year prison sentence. However, he escaped from prison and assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., triggering a vicious man-hunt that spanned over two months and five countries. Authorities finally caught up with him in London on July 19, 1968, and extradited him to the United States. Ray pled guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He spent the majority of his time in jail trying to reverse the decision, mad at himself for pleading guilty.
Walter Cronkite Reported The Tragedy
Walter Cronkite, lead anchor of the CBS Evening News, was almost done with his nightly broadcast when word of Martin Luther King's death made it to his studio. Cronkite reported the news and included a statement from then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, informing the nation to reject the violence of the assassination, and embrace the non-violent message preached by King. Cronkite also included some quotes from shocked residents of Harlem, New York, who reportedly "poured out into the streets, dazed" upon hearing the news.
Coretta Scott King Immediately Continued To Spread Her Late Husband's Non-Violent MessagePhoto: Herman Hiller/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Four days after the death of her husband, Coretta Scott King was a pillar of strength. After catching a plane to Memphis arranged by Robert F. Kennedy (who gave a speech the night of April 4 in Martin Luther King Jr.'s memory), she led a march through the streets of Memphis on behalf of the city's Black sanitation workers. The march was eerily silent, despite the estimated 40,000 people who joined in.