Never The Same

April 4, 1968

We know Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s thundering oratory delivered to 2,000 at Mason Temple as a piece of American history.

I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. I am so 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.

Not a word of that appeared in the newspaper. The reporter, instead, focused on logistics of the next march and King’s intent to turn out marchers.

If the police dogs and fire hoses in Alabama couldn't stop us, an injunction in Memphis, Tennessee can't," he told the disappointingly small crowd.
Pleading for unity, Dr. King said, "We've got to stay together and maintain unity. We have to keep the issues where they are supposed to be. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be honest with its public servants who happen to be garbage men … We don't need bricks and bottles and Molotov cocktails. We're building an economic base and putting pressure where it hurts.

Outside the Lorraine Motel, U.S. Marshal Cato Ellis served Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a temporary restraining order from a federal judge, barring them from leading another march in Memphis without court approval. Also present were top King aides Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange and Bernard Lee. "We are not going to be stopped by Mace or injunctions," said Dr. King. (Barney Sellers/The Commercial Appeal)

April 5, 1968

Reporter John Means was sparing, efficient in his words as he delivered the chilling news that changed the nation:

A sniper shot and killed Dr. Martin Luther King last night as he stood on the balcony of a downtown hotel.

The most intensive manhunt in the city's history was touched off minutes after the shooting.

Violence broke out in Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham, Miami, Raleigh, Washington, New York and other cities as news of the assassination swept the nation.

National leaders, including President Lyndon Johnson, and aides close to the slain 39-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner, urged the nation to stay calm and avoid violence.

The entire nation was tense.

Looking back: The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles was only feet from King when he died and gave this account to the newspaper during a 2013 retrospective.

I turned to go down the steps. And I heard this noise. A rifle shot. I couldn't believe what was happening. It was beyond my belief. I could not believe what I was looking at. The bullet pierced the side of his face. Blood oozed out. Just oozed out. Blood everywhere. Blood was flowing. I ran back in the room to call an ambulance. They didn't have cell phones in that day. But I ran back in the room to use the phone. When the (motel) operator heard the shot she dropped the phone and never picked it up. She never picked it up. I was beating on the wall. Ralph (Abernathy) said, ‘Calm down, Billy. Calm down. … I said, ‘Answer the phone. Answer the phone.' She ran back outside — saw Martin lying on the floor. And she had a heart attack. She was the motel owner's wife.

Reporter Thomas Fox was dispatched to St. Joseph Hospital and got close by attaching himself to the family of another ER patient.

Dr. Martin Luther King, his head wrapped in a towel and an oxygen mask over his face, looked small on the stretcher as he was wheeled into the emergency room of St. Joseph Hospital at 8:14 last night.

His eyes were closed and the only sound was from the resuscitator which was pumping oxygen into his dying body.

Looking back: “A few snippets are still vivid,” Fox said. “The ambulance pulling up a few car lengths from the emergency room, King being taken out, lying there with eyes closed, and what appeared to be a blue blanket covering his cheek — the picture of a man taking a nap. Then everybody rushing inside, the room quickly filling with nervous cops and groups of people talking quietly and wearing looks of resignation. Not sure exactly how to put this, but the room seemed oddly drained of emotion, as if everyone knew the worst but still dared to hope.”

A companion story documented the immediate reaction on the streets:

Looting, arson and shooting began minutes after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. late last night and in hours Tennessee National Guardsmen arrived to take over street patrols in riot-torn Memphis.

Negroes began swarming into streets, smashing windows and setting fires shortly after the announcement of the civil rights leader’s death at 7 p. m. … Police had arrested 80 persons, including two juveniles and two women by 1 a.m. There were at least 28 persons reported hurt and a steady flow of injured was being treated at hospitals.

Amid the reporting was this rare, one-paragraph notice: The Commercial Appeal is aware that all law enforcement agencies are doing their utmost to apprehend the killer, but we also realize that information from any source could be helpful. Therefore, The Commercial Appeal offers a reward of $25,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for this monstrous crime.

Editors also appealed for calm in a front-page editorial:

It is time that those of us in all circumstances and of all attitudes realize in the shock of this emotional action that somehow our difficulties and apparent differences must be resolved without further violence and bloodshed.

Hate has produced its ultimate product at the ultimate price.

Looking back: Former CA Editor Angus McEachran, then the newspaper’s Metro Editor, can still recite what came across the police scanner just after 6:01 p.m. “All cars, all cars, Dr. King has been shot. Lorraine Motel. All cars, all cars, Dr. King has been shot.”

On Friday morning, April 5, 1968, hundreds of mourners paid tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at R.S. Lewis & Sons Funeral Home on Vance. Among those who stopped at his casket, as it was about to be transported to the airport, were two of his aides, Andrew Young (at the end of the casket) and Rev. Hosea Williams (right). In his 1996 autobiography, "An Easy Burden, " Andrew Young wrote: "No matter how one tries to prepare for death, the reality is difficult to accept. Now that Martin's death, which had always lurked just below the surface of our consciousness, had actually occured, we were, I suppose, all struggling to find a way to accept it. My first gut reaction was classic anger and denial: Martin couldn't leave us with all this mess. It seemed unfair that he was 'free' from innumerable problems, while we, the living, were left to try to cope without him. We had been just getting by with him, how could we get along without him?" Dr. King was shot the day before, as he stood on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. At the time of his death, King was on his third trip to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers. (Charles Nicholas/The Commercial Appeal)

April 9, 1968

The nonviolent teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr yesterday guided 19,000 mourning marchers.

They marched silently down Main Street to City Hall, heard his widow challenge them “to see that his spirit never dies” and then dispersed as quietly as they came without a single incident.

They came on foot from north and south Memphis, and by chartered jet from across the nation, north and south. They wore $50 a pair high heels and mud-coated work shoes, black mourning veils and beatnik sunglasses.

Dirge-like notes of ‘We Shall Overcome’ were still echoing between City Hall and the 100 North Main building when the crowd began to trickle away in all directions, five hours after the downtown march began.

National Civil Rights Museum
National Civil Rights Museum