“God knows that this is the most tragic thing that ever happened in my life,” – Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Operation Rainbow PUSH
By Erick Johnson, A Crusader Special Report
Easter Sunday on April 7, 1968 was unlike any other in years past. Days before, Christians around the world prepared for the sacred holiday. In Chicago and Gary, retail stores and supermarkets were busy with shoppers looking for fresh outfits and a juicy ham for their special Easter dinner. Students in both cities started a three-day weekend. Back then, schools, banks and federal offices were closed because Good Friday—the Friday before Easter—was a federal holiday.
Before millions marked the crucifixion of Christ that Good Friday, a day earlier some 532 miles southwest, a single gunshot tore through the jaw of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After suffering a heavy loss of blood, King died less than an hour later. But unlike Jesus, there would be no resurrection of King.
The messiah who saved Black America was gone for good. Black America was left with an uncertain future.
A younger generation of Blacks took their anger to the streets and set on fire scores of major and small cities across the country.
Easter Sunday was supposed to be a happy time, but for many Blacks, it was empty without the man who was worshipped and adored as much as Jesus himself.
He was no blond-haired, blued-eyed figure many have seen in churches and biblical documents. King was Black and a courageous man of God who seemed like God in Black flesh. To a generation that suffered during Jim Crow and segregation, King was their king.
Big and larger than life, King’s assassination was a murder that stopped the world on April 4, 1968.
On Wednesday, April 4, 2018 America will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the most prominent Civil Rights leader in the nation—one whose death triggered an outpouring of grief in Black America.
In Chicago and Gary, King’s death would be felt by over a million Blacks who fled the South during the Great Migration. Just 37 miles apart, both cities would react differently in the wake of King’s murder. Under the oppressive administration of Mayor Richard J. Daley, King’s death sparked riots on Chicago’s West Side. Gary remained calm as Blacks continued to achieve political power one year after the city elected the nation’s first Black mayor, Richard Gordon Hatcher.
April 4, 1968 began as an ordinary day in America. Otis Redding’s, “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” was the top song on the American Billboard chart for the fourth straight week. After his successful role in the groundbreaking movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with Katherine Hepburn in 1967, Sidney Poitier—the first Black to win an Oscar for Best Actor—was demanding $750,000 for a role in “For the Love of Ivy,” a romantic comedy about a Black maid falling in love with a trucking company executive.
In Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley was prepping the city for the 1968 Democratic National Convention at the Conrad Hilton Hotel. With Blacks supporting Robert F. Kennedy, Daley was torn between endorsing the 42-year-old Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Just one block south of the Hilton, media mogul John H. Johnson was building his groundbreaking headquarters for Ebony and Jet magazines. And the Ravinia officials announced that the prominent Black soprano Marian Anderson would sing at the storied music festival in Highland Park on Chicago’s North Shore.
In Memphis, King, a 39-year-old Baptist preacher was staying at the Lorraine Motel, a Black-owned, two-story structure operated by Walter Bailey.
King wasn’t supposed to be at the Lorraine or in Memphis. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover accused him of living large by staying at a Holiday Inn in Memphis, according to author Gerald Frank in his book, An American Death: The True Story of the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Greatest Manhunt of our Time.
After a peaceful demonstration on March 28 ended in violence, King was advised not to return to Memphis. Downtown shops were looted, and a 16-year-old was shot and killed by a policeman.
King wanted to return to Memphis to lead a march for the Black sanitation employees who were striking for better wages and working conditions after two workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck.
He was also facing heavy criticism for his stance against the Vietnam War and his plans to take his Poor People’s Campaign to Washington. But his plans to return to Memphis—a city with intense racial history—drew the most concern.
King decided to go to Memphis after having a heated argument with Marian Logan, a close friend and secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Logan’s husband, Dr. Arthur Logan, was a physician and top fundraiser for the Black organization that King founded. The Logans were friends with King, but Marian was strongly against the march in Memphis and urged King to cancel the trip.
According to Frank’s book, in late March, King showed up at the Logan’s residence in New York. The couple and King argued through the night about taking the April trip to Memphis. The argument ended without a resolution. King had been on sleeping pills prescribed by his physician, but the drugs weren’t working.
King eventually got his way after a telephone call on April 3 where Marian told him, “If you don’t get yourself out of there, you’re going to get yourself killed.” King replied, “Marian, I’ve been trying to tell you darling, I’m ready to die,” according to Frank’s book.
Located at 450 Mulberry Street in Memphis, King would check into room 306 at the Lorraine Motel with his closest advisor Reverend Ralph Abernathy. Reverend Jesse Jackson would be next door in room 305.
In room 5B at a rooming house across the street was John Willard, a.k.a James Earl Ray, a young white ex-convict who used the alias to check into the rooming house.
Solomon Jones, a driver with the R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home in Memphis, pulled up at the Lorraine Motel in a white Cadillac limousine. King and his advisors were preparing to visit the home of Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles for a soul food dinner complete with pig knuckles, fried pig feet and turnip greens.
Despite concerns about the Memphis march, King was reportedly in a good mood after successfully delivering his famous, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before at the Mason Temple.
That day, April 4, King spent the day working with local leaders on his plans to take his Poor People’s March to Washington later that month.
According to Frank’s book, An American Death, a few minutes before 6 p.m., King walked out on the balcony while stuffing in his shirt. He greeted Jones, the limo driver who was with Andrew Young, another King advisor who went on to become Atlanta’s second Black mayor after Maynard Jackson.
Also standing next to him was King’s attorney, Chauncey Eskridge, Reverend James Bevel and Reverend Hosea Williams.
While on the balcony, King called down to 26-year-old Jackson, a rising aide to the civil rights leader and said, “Jesse, I want you to come to dinner with us,” according to Frank’s book.
After more talk, Kyles took five steps down the stairs to get to his car when he heard a loud sound. Bevel was on his knees and Young was crouched down and others ducked behind the Cadillac. In a pool of blood, King lay unconscious. The right side of his jaw down had been blown off.
Abernathy ran out of room 306 after putting on some lotion. “Oh my God, Martin’s been shot,” he said in Frank’s book, An American Death.
Joseph Louw, a documentary photographer who was following King, came out of room 309 after hearing the loud sound. Seeing Abernathy kneeling beside King’s body, Louw dashed back to his room and grabbed a camera. In a frenzy, he took several photographs before snapping the famous one that included Abernathy and Young and other leaders pointing to the rooming house where the fatal shot was fired.
King was rushed to St. Joseph Hospital, a Catholic institution that was just two miles from the Lorraine Motel. There, a dozen doctors worked on King. A tracheotomy was performed to give King an airway allowing him to breathe. Despite all the efforts, King died at 7:05 p.m.
Abernathy, King’s closest advisor, became the new leader of the SCLC and the civil rights movement.
After King’s death, Jackson told NBC news, “God knows that this is the most tragic thing that ever happened in my life.”
Days later, ironically Loreen Bailey, the wife of the owner of the Lorraine Motel, died after suffering a stroke.
According to reports, Jackson called King’s wife, Coretta, in Atlanta and told her that her husband had been shot but did not say he died. Coretta learned the bad news from King’s longtime secretary, Dora McDonald, who ran towards Coretta before she boarded a plane for Memphis at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport. Coretta was driven to the airport by Mayor Ivan Allen.
In an interview with the Crusader, Jackson said he called his wife back in Chicago and then WVON host and Soul Train founder, Don Cornelius, with the news.
“The trauma King experienced in life led to the trauma of his death,” Jackson said.
In Gary, Hatcher was with Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy the morning of April 4, 1968. Kennedy had been campaigning for the White House in Gary. He left the city at 3 p.m. for other Indiana cities, arriving at the Broadway Christian Center where he announced King’s death to a crowd of about 500 Blacks at 9 p.m.
Fearing a race riot, Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar told Kennedy’s staff that his police could not guarantee Kennedy’s safety at 17th and Broadway. Kennedy gave the news anyway.
That evening, two months before his own assassination in June 1968, Robert F. Kennedy delivered a speech that became one of the most inspiring in American history.
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country whether they be white or whether they be Black,” Kennedy said.
“It was of great pain because Dr. King was and still is an inspiration of my life,” said former Gary Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, who said he learned of King’s death by watching Kennedy’s speech on television.
For the next several weeks, Black America and the nation would go into a period of deep mourning.
Chicago Alderman Michelle Harris (8th) said, “I have limited memories of that day because I was only six-years-old when Dr. King was assassinated. However, what I do remember was the sadness that came over my grandparents and our entire household. I didn’t totally understand the impact of his death until I was a little older.”
For the first time in American history, a sitting president ordered that flags be flown at half-staff for a Black man.
Thousands turned out for two funerals for King in Atlanta.
At 10:30 a.m., one service was held at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where King preached. Mourners followed the order of service, reading from a 16-page printed funeral program. Black America’s Who’s Who attended, including Harry Belafonte, the Supremes, Sammy Davis Jr., and Eartha Kitt. Chicago’s Mahalia Jackson, a close friend who spurred on King during his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” in 1963, sang King’s favorite hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
“I remember looking at the funeral on television in its entirety,” said Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson. “As a little girl, I was seven, and I remember thinking what it would be like if I was Bernice King who lost her dad. As a kid when you have adults around, you sense a loss, and so it felt like a loss to me as well. My parents were devastated. At the time, we had African-American leadership, and I think that made a huge difference.”
Following the services, King’s casket was borne on a horse-driven carriage to his alma mater, the historically Black Morehouse College. Thousands lined the procession route before a second service was held at the all-male school at 2 p.m.
King was originally buried at Atlanta’s predominantly Black South View Cemetery, but his remains were reinterred in a crypt at his Center for Nonviolent Social Change after threats of vandalism on King’s original grave.
King’s death added more fuel to the growing Black Panther movement, which at times, clashed with King’s nonviolent message with its militant approach to fighting racism and segregation.
President Lyndon Johnson appealed for calm as riots erupted in some 108 major cities, including Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston and Pittsburgh.
In Chicago, most of the damage occurred on the city’s West Side where angry protesters broke windows, looted stores and set buildings on fire in Lawndale and on West Madison Street. On April 5, 1968, Mayor Richard J. Daley imposed a curfew for residents under 21.
WVON Radio host Perri Small recalled the dark period in Chicago history.
“We were living at Lake Meadows at the time. Most of the rioting happened the following day on the West Side. My mother went to work as a fifth-grade teacher at Grant Elementary School. I remember my father being very, very worried. The rioting was bad and my mother didn’t come home for a long time. She didn’t drive, so she carpooled with some other teachers. I was scared to death. There was a Food Basket store on 87th and South Parkway and it was always open 24 hours. But it was only the first time that store was closed.”
Sherry Williams, president of the Bronzeville Historical Society, said, “I remember the day vividly. I walked home from school alone and met my mother with shotgun in hand asking, ‘Where are your brothers?’ Apparently, word had reached my mom that trouble was brewing. 59th Street was empty because the Black Panthers had shut off the expressway exit to keep ‘mayhem’ from coming to our community. A Black Panther safe house was directly across the street from where I lived.”
At City Hall, about 500 people packed the Council chambers for a special memorial meeting. A large portrait of King was draped in Black and purple bunting, according to one story in the Chicago Tribune.
Nine Black aldermen delivered eulogies at the meeting called by Mayor Richard J. Daley, who ordered flags at half-staff. Daley, who was a known critic of King, was supportive of ideas to honor King because he was afraid the rioting would spread and damage Chicago’s image as it prepared to host the Democratic National Convention.
“We were very concerned that we were going to have that type of (violent) response,” Hatcher told the Crusader. “Police Chief Charles Boone went out and to the neighborhoods and nightclubs to see if everyone was ok.”
Hatcher was one of several national leaders who President Johnson summoned to the White House on April 5 for a meeting that aimed to keep America’s Black neighborhoods calm in the aftermath of King’s assassination.
King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, used a Remington 30-06 rifle to kill King. Before his crime, Ray briefly worked at the defunct Indiana Trail restaurant in Winnetka on Chicago’s North Shore.
In 1967, he escaped the Missouri State Penitentiary, where he was serving a 20-year sentence for robbing a supermarket. An international manhunt led to his capture at London’s Heathrow Airport. Coretta Scott King learned of his arrest while attending the burial of Robert F. Kennedy in June at Arlington National Cemetery.
Ray pleaded guilty to killing King, but recanted his confession. He was serving a 99-year sentence when he died of liver failure at Columbia Nashville Memorial Hospital in Nashville, TN on April 23, 1998.
Until the day she died, Coretta Scott King said that Ray did not murder her husband—a belief shared by many Blacks who suspect FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the U.S. government were involved in King’s assassination.
“The loss of Dr. King has shown today what a valued leader we lost,” said Alderman Willie Cochran (20th). “How history was changed and could have benefitted. His assassination by a gunman has been a major disrupter in the fight for equality.”