Shortly after the peak of the American Civil Rights Movement, nonviolence advocate and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. was fatally shot on April 4, 1968 at The Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

That week he traveled to Memphis to aid 1,300 sanitation workers who were on strike. The majority of the striking workers were African-Americans.

According to witness and close friend of King's, Rev. Jesse Jackson, they were standing on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel dressed to go eat dinner just after 6 p.m.

Jackson said King had just bent down moments before he was struck in the neck by a sniper's bullet while standing with his associates.

The 39-year-old leader was rushed to St. Joseph Hospital where he was pronounced dead around 7 p.m. News of Dr. King's death was broadcasted nationwide by media outlets.

“I regretted that the man lost his life trying to do some good,” 91-year-old Billy Pearson said. He was living in Louisville, Mississippi at the time of King’s death.  

Pearson was doing electrical work and listening to the radio when he heard the news that King was fatally shot. 

“I know I just quit right then and just sat down and just thought about it wondering what in the world was going to go on,” he said, saddened by the news.  

Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington immediately ordered 4,000 National Guard troops into the mourning and distraught city. 

Despite King’s wishes to always keep protests peaceful, violence broke out in Memphis with fire bombings. 

King was widely known for his nonviolent tactics to unite individuals of every race. In his eyes, everyone was equal and deserved racial equality.

Other Civil Rights leaders were aiming to achieve racial equality by any means necessary, including violent acts, but King was driven toward civil obedience with nonviolent resistance against discrimination and police brutality. 

Following Rosa Parks’ refusal to vacate her seat for a white passenger on the Montgomery city buses in 1955, King became involved as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). 

In late January 1956, his family’s home was bombed while he was at a mass meeting. At the time, his wife Coretta and daughter Yolanda were not injured. 

King still found the strength to peacefully address a group of angry protestors outside his home. The bombing was retaliation for his involvements in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. 

“What in the world is this world coming to when a man can’t do what he was doing? He wasn’t bothering me - I didn’t have any animosity toward him,” Pearson said.

Pearson said King was just another man who was trying to make things better. 

“I think he accomplished a lot of that,” Pearson said. 

King and other Civil Rights leaders were so inspired by the boycott they founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which played a huge role in the movement particularly the March on Washington in 1963 for jobs and freedom.

The efforts of King and others led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being passed followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

On Oct. 14, 1964 at the age of 35, King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his peaceful tactics against discrimination. 

Pearson believes King had an impact with his positivity.

Though a lot of individuals in disagreement with King saw him as a walking target, he never let it deter him from striving for progress. 

As a soldier in the Korean War, Pearson could relate to that feeling. 

The verbatim of his speeches seemed as if King foreshadowed his own death, especially in his speech the night before at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis. 

“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 said in his speech. “And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

“When you bring it up it still hurts. It hurts me ... He was trying to better himself as far as I’m concerned,” Pearson said. 

“There’s some of the sorriest people like that fella that shot him,” he added. 

Escaped convict James Earl Ray allegedly killed Dr. King from a rented room across the street. Police found a bundle with binoculars, a newspaper with a story about King inside, and a .30-06 rifle that had one shot fired. The fingerprints collected matched Ray’s. 

It wasn’t until June 1968 that Ray was captured carrying two fake Canadian passports and finally confessed to the killing in March 1969. 

He was sentenced to a 99 year sentence. He attempted another escape in 1977 that added one year to his sentence. 

Because the FBI was involved in harassing King in the 1950s and 60s the King family hold conspiracy theories about King’s true killer, not finding the FBI evidence believable. 

Pearson said he felt relieved when Ray was caught by police.

“Put yourself in my position and his position. If it gets where you can’t walk down the street and talk to people about your feelings it’s a sad, sad time,” Pearson said. “I wouldn’t walk across the street to say anything wrong about the man.”

At the time Pearson said people had mixed feelings about King’s death. Some were saddened and some didn’t care. 

“I wonder and still wonder if that fella hadn’t have killed him what would’ve been the outcome of society?,” Pearson said. 

Oktibbeha NAACP President Yulanda Haddix imagined the same.

Haddix’ family is from the Memphis area and her mom was heavily involved in gaining equal rights at the time. Haddix was around five years old when she heard family members in total shock repeating “Dr. King was shot!” 

“As a little girl when it happened it was like a bomb hit our town,” she said. “Everybody was totally devastated.”

She believes if Dr. King were alive today the African-American community would be more active and progressive about social injustice. 

In her eyes the community has developed a laissez-faire attitude and King’s presence today would lead to proactive solutions. 

Anniversary of MLK's death

Original article printed in Starkville Daily News following the death of MLK. 

 “Because at this point we don’t have that great leader with that climate that he brought to us,” Haddix said. “So I know if he were here today we would be in a totally different society.”

Recommended for you