Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Esparza, Jesse J. “King, Martin Luther, Jr., Assassination of. “Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century. : Oxford University Press, 2009.
Born 15 January 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. epitomized the efforts of African Americans during the civil rights movement. From 1956 to 1968 he became the most popular and effective leader of the movement for equality. After speaking at a rally and rescheduling a planned march in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of black sanitation workers who were on strike, King checked into room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. At 6:01 p.m. the next evening, that of 4 April 1968, he was shot while standing on the motel’s second-floor balcony. The bullet struck King in the lower face and jaw and proceeded downward, nicking his spine and eventually lodging itself beneath his left shoulder blade. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead within the hour. He was only thirty-nine years old.
King’s death unleashed a torrent of rage in black communities across the country. Rioting engulfed Washington, D.C., Chicago, Kansas City, and numerous other cities. More than 125 cities, it is estimated, experienced similar uprisings. His death also removed the one individual who had the capacity to unify the black population, command broad respect from whites, and help bridge the racial divide that troubled the United States.
Initial investigations revealed a set of fingerprints on a pair of binoculars, a .30-06 rifle, beer cans, a copy of the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper, and a map of Mexico that matched those of James Earl Ray, an escaped convict who had broken out of the Missouri State Penitentiary a year earlier. The search for Ray ended in London on 8 June 1968 when he was captured at London’s Heathrow Airport while trying to leave the country using a false Canadian passport. Apparently Ray had fled from Memphis to Canada, from there to London and then to Lisbon, from whence he returned to London. He was quickly extradited to Tennessee and charged with King’s murder. Confessing to the murder and entering a plea of guilty on 10 March 1969, Ray was sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison. He recanted his confession three days later and spent the rest of his life trying to withdraw his guilty plea and secure a trial, but he was unsuccessful. On 23 April 1998 Ray died in prison at the age of seventy from complications related to kidney disease and liver failure.
From the moment of the assassination evidence suggested that King was the victim of a conspiracy. Soon it came to light that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had a vendetta against King: The FBI had labeled King a national security threat and had subjected him to massive surveillances, smear campaigns, and even blackmail. The widely held suspicions about the FBI’s involvement in King’s death increased when a 1975 Senate investigation revealed that the bureau had conducted a counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) against King. Even the deputy director of the FBI, William C. Sullivan, agreed that there might have been a conspiracy to assassinate King. As a result of those investigations Attorney General Edward H. Levi asked Congress to establish the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Formed in September 1976, this twelve-member committee was to conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Congressman Louis Stokes was the committee’s chairman. Heading his subcommittees were Richardson Preyer of North Carolina (assassination of Kennedy) and Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia (assassination of King).
News of Assassination. A man collapses in grief upon hearing the news of King’s murder by a sniper, 1968. Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library
The House Select Committee was also assigned the task of looking into the FBI’s actions in its campaigns against King and of determining whether there were grounds for criminal prosecution against FBI personnel who had been involved.
Investigations lasted approximately two years. By 1979 the House Select Committee released its findings. On the King assassination the committee concluded that King was killed by one rifle shot from James Earl Ray but that Ray possibly was part of a larger conspiracy. But no U.S. government agency, including the FBI, was part of any such conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King Jr. Although the committee’s report criticized the FBI for continuing its security investigations and surveillance of King even after it became clear that he was firmly committed to nonviolence and was opposed to subverting the government, the committee failed to indict any FBI members for his murder. The committee’s report also raised curious questions about the manner of King’s murder. Early ballistic tests on the rifle and the bullet taken from King’s body during the autopsy revealed that while the bullet could have been fired from the rifle found near the scene, the extensive mutilation of the bullet made it impossible to conclude that it was actually fired from the rifle. The House Select Committee even questioned the role of local law enforcement. Within moments of being shot, members of the Memphis Police Department were at the scene, almost as if they had anticipated King’s shooting or as if they were in on the planning. But with the FBI assuming control of every aspect of the investigation, attention by skeptics and conspiracy theorists turned away from the police force to the FBI.
Despite the committee’s findings, however, many people were not persuaded and held on to their own theories about the murder of King and about the FBI’s involvement. In the end the assassination transformed King into a martyr. In 1983, Congress and President Ronald Reagan added his birthday to the list of national holidays, and thousands of streets, schools, and public buildings are named after him.