Photo: Central Press/Getty Images
At 6:05 p.m. on Thursday, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot dead while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
James Earl Ray, a 40-year-old fugitive, later confessed to the crime and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. A tape was played during King’s funeral in which King spoke of how he wanted to be remembered after his death: “I wish someone would mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving to others
King had arrived in Tennessee on Wednesday, April 3, to prepare for a march the following Monday on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers. As he prepared to leave the Lorraine Motel for dinner at the home of Memphis minister Samuel “Billy” Kyles, King stepped onto the balcony of Room 306 to speak with colleagues from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who were standing in the parking lot below. An assassin fired a single shot, causing serious injuries to the lower right part of his face.
An ambulance took King to St. Joseph Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead at 7:05 p.m. m.
President Lyndon B. Johnson called for a national day of mourning on April 7. In the days that followed, public libraries, museums, schools and businesses were closed, and the Academy Awards ceremony and numerous sporting events were postponed.
King’s funeral was held April 9 in Atlanta at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Many of the nation’s civil rights and political leaders attended, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Ralph Bunche.
After another ceremony on the Morehouse campus, King’s body was initially buried in South-View Cemetery. Eventually, it was moved to a crypt next to the Ebenezer Church in the King Centeran institution founded by King’s widow.
Shortly after the murder, a police officer discovered a bundle containing a Remington 30.06 rifle next to the boardinghouse. The largest investigation in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) led its agents to an apartment in Atlanta. Fingerprints discovered in the apartment matched those of James Earl Ray, a fugitive who had escaped from a Missouri prison in April 1967.
FBI agents and Memphis police presented further evidence that Ray had checked in on April 4 at the South Main Street Boarding House and that he had rented a room on the second floor near a communal bathroom with a view of the Lorraine Motel.
Ray’s identification as a suspect led to an international manhunt.. On July 19, 1968, Ray was extradited to the United States from Great Britain to stand trial. In a plea deal, Tennessee prosecutors agreed in March 1969 to waive seeking the death penalty when Ray pleaded guilty to murder charges.
The circumstances leading to the guilty plea later became a source of controversy.when Ray retracted his confession shortly after being sentenced to 99 years in prison.
In the years following King’s assassination, revelations of extensive surveillance of King by the FBI and other government agencies fueled doubts about the case against Ray.
Beginning in 1976, the House Select Committee on Assassinations re-examined evidence relating to King’s assassination, as well as that of President John F. Kennedy. The committee’s final report suggested that Ray may have had accomplices.. However, the report concluded that there was no convincing evidence of government complicity in King’s murder.
After retracting his guilty plea, Ray continued to maintain his innocence and claimed to have been framed by an arms smuggler he knew as “Raoul”.
In 1993, Ray’s attorney, William F. Pepper, sought to build popular support for reopening Ray’s case by staging a televised mock trial of Ray in which the “jury” found him not guilty.
In 1997, members of King’s family publicly supported Ray’s appeal for a new trial, and King’s son, Dexter Scott King, supported Ray’s claims of innocence during a televised meeting in prison. Despite this support, Tennessee authorities refused to reopen the case, and Ray died in prison on April 23, 1998.