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Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated

This Day in World History

April 4, 1968

Martin Luther King, Jr., is Assassinated

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico, 1964. Source: Library of Congress.

On April 4, 1968, as he stood on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel of Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr., was struck in the neck by a sniper’s bullet. The bullet severed his spinal cord, killing him instantly. A giant of the Civil Rights movement was dead.

Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, first rose to prominence in the Civil Rights movement in 1954. Though he was only 25 years old, he became the leader of the boycott by African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, of the city’s segregated bus system.

After the boycott succeeded, King joined with other ministers to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group pledged to nonviolent civil disobedience to end segregation. King and the SCLC took part in several protests. Their efforts pressured President Lyndon Johnson to push Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — key pieces of civil rights legislation.

King’s moral leadership led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was also renowned for his oratory, best exemplified by his “I have a dream” speech delivered to around 200,000 marchers who marched on Washington, D.C., in 1963.

King came to Memphis in 1968 to lend his support to striking garbage workers, the vast majority of whom were African Americans. Speaking at a Memphis church the night before his shooting, he closed with these words, addressing the possibility of violence: “It really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…. 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!”

King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, pleaded guilty to the shooting, though he later recanted. King’s death was followed by rioting in several of the nation’s cities. In 1983, an act of Congress made King’s January birthday a national holiday.

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