Who Assassinated Martin Luther King Jr.?

By | April 11, 2021

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 Selma To Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marchers, in front of Montgomery, Alabama state capital building. On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Stephen Somerstein/Getty Images)

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most significant leaders in American history and the preeminent leader of the African-American Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and '60s. His contributions toward American liberty were great, most notably popularizing civil disobedience (a tactic he learned from Mahatma Gandhi) on his own homestead of Montgomery, Alabama after Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat on a segregated bus in 1955. The resulting Montgomery Bus Boycott proved a success, as the courts ruled that bus segregation was in conflict with the 14th Amendment, which promised "equal protection of the laws." Not everyone was happy about it.

Previous Attempts On King's Life

With success came conflict, as King would learn on September 20, 1958, when a young, disturbed woman named Izola Curry attempted to murder King by stabbing him in the abdomen with a letter opener. Following emergency surgery, King spent several weeks in the hospital but eventually made a full recovery, while Curry spent the rest of her life in a psychiatric institution, never deemed competent to stand trial.

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Lorraine Motel in 2012. The wreath marks King's approximate location at the time of his assassination. (DavGreg/Wikimedia Commons)

That Fateful Day

In 1968, King became heavily involved with the labor movement among sanitation workers in Tennessee, which he hoped would establish a precedent for future labor unions. On April 3, he gave a rousing and disturbingly prophetic speech:

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 ... Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Fewer than 24 hours later, King was shot as he stood on the second balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was leaning over the rail when a single bullet struck his lower jaw and neck, traveling through his body before fatally damaging his spine. His friends rushed to his aid, but King lost consciousness immediately, and though he was rushed to a hospital, he was pronounced dead within the hour. Jesse Jackson recalled the event as traumatizing:

To see him lying there soaked in blood, 39 years old ... I remember Ralph Abernathy coming out and saying, 'Get back, my friend, my friend, don’t leave us now,' but Dr. King was dead on impact.