Martin Luther King assassination in 1968 a ‘cruel and wanton act’


April 4, 2012

Forty-four years ago today, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. He was 39.

A day after his assassination, The Washington Post ran a front page story about King’s death, alongside a photo of the Baptist minister with his hands clasped.

With much of the country in mourning, The Post also ran a story from the Times-Herald that began:

“Martin Luther King is the victim of a cruel and wanton act that will be deplored from one end of this country to the other. There is about this assault upon the great Negro leader the same kind of wanton senselessness that overtook the man whose tactics he emulated — Mahatma Gandhi. Men of good will, noble purpose and pacific impulses enjoy no immunity from violence, no matter how they shut it in their personal conduct.”

After King’s death, riots spread through Memphis. Some 4,000 National Guard troops were ordered into the city, and a curfew was imposed on the city. Meanwhile, the Times-Herald story continued:

Let this crime become the occasion for uniting the Negro and white community in behalf of the principles of social justice, racial equality and non-violence. It would be the last and final and ultimate repudiation of everything for which Martin Luther King stood if it were to arouse racial hatred and excite the kind of violence that he deplored.”

But King’s death did excite the violence he deplored. In The Post’s April 5 story on the assassination, Memphis Police Director Frank Holloman is quoted as saying: “We are in a state of emergency here.”

The riots soon spread across the nation— to Chicago, Baltimore, Kansas City and Washington, D.C. It took days to pacify D.C. rioters. Damages to the city exceeded $27 million, the equivalent of more than $156 million today.

Two months after King died, escaped convict James Early Ray, who had been seen fleeing from a rooming house across the street from where King was shot, was captured. Ray pleaded guilty to shooting King, but later said he confessed under pressure.

James Bevel, a friend of King’s, told a King autobiographer he didn’t believe Ray acted alone. “There is no way a ten-cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man,” Bevel said, according to the biography by Taylor Branch. Other friends and colleagues of the civil rights leader agreed.

“It is possible to kill men like Martin Luther King,” wrote the Times-Herald. “But the ideas for which they stand are not mortal or indestructible.”

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