The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From the archive: Dr. King Is Slain in Memphis; Troops Ordered Into City

Front page of The Washington Post, April 5, 1968 , following the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Front page of The Washington Post, April 5, 1968 , following the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. (N/A/The Washington Post)

[Editor’s Note: This is the original story published by The Washington Post about the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.]

MEMPHIS, Tenn., April 4 — The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed by a sniper today when he strolled alone onto the balcony of his hotel.

Gov. Buford Ellington ordered 4,000 National Guard troops into the city and a curfew was imposed. Unrest immediately broke out in the Negro district.

Police threw a cordon around a five-block area that contained the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. King was slain.

Two Men are Held

Two white men wearing dark clothing were hustled into the Memphis Police Station. It was not known if they were connected with the shooting.

Police issued a bulletin for a young white man in dark clothes who dashed out of a building across the street from the hotel, dropped a Browning automatic rifle fitted with a scope onto the sidewalk and fled in a car.

They said an alert had also been broadcast for a blue, late-model Mustang, which was seen leaving the area at the time of the shooting. Three white men are in the car, police said.

Across the Mississippi River from Memphis, police were alerted for a car driven by a white man, dark-haired and dressed in a dark suit.

"He Didn't Move"

The Rev. Andrew Young, executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by King, said the shot hit Dr. King in the neck and lower right part of his face.

“He didn’t say a word; he didn’t move,” Young said.

Immediately after the shooting, the civil rights leader was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital where he was declared dead a short time later.

“Martin Luther King is dead,” Assistant Police Chief Henry Lux said.

Rifle-armed police blocked the front entrances to the hospital to hold back a crowd that gathered quickly.

Memphis police immediately moved into the area and scaled off the block surrounding the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King and his party were staying.

State of Emergency

“We are in a state of emergency here,” said Police Director Frank Holloman.

In Washington, the FBI said it had begun an investigation of the shooting at the specific request of Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

Dr. King returned to Memphis yesterday to take charge of continuing demonstrations in support of the city’s 1,300 striking garbage collectors. A march led by Dr. King last Thursday erupted into rioting in which one person was killed. Another march had been planned.

National Guard troops rushed to Memphis to quell last week’s riot but pulled out last night.

King died in the same hospital where James Meredith was taken after his ambush wounding in Hernando, Miss., south of Memphis in June, 1965.

Meredith was shot and wounded by a Memphis man who lay in wait for him on the second day of his Memphis-to-Jackson march. He was not seriously wounded.

Preparing to Dine

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ben Branch of Chicago, with Dr. King when he was shot, said they were getting ready to eat dinner.

“King was on the second-floor balcony of the motel. He had just bent over,” Mr. Jackson said. “If he had been standing up he wouldn’t have been hit in the face.” Dr. King had just told Branch: ‘My man, be sure to sing ‘Blessed Lord’ tonight and sing it well.’”

A shot then rang out, Mr. Jackson said.

“I knocked him down. When I turned around I saw police coming from everywhere. They said where did it come from, and I said behind you. The police were coming from where the shot came.”

Also with the King party was the Rev. Samuel Kyles of Memphis. Mr. Kyles said, “He had stood there about three minutes.”

Dr. King said the shot came from “the hill on the other side of the street,” Branch said. “When I looked up, the police and the sheriff’s deputies were running all around. The bullet exploded in his face. It knocked him off his feet.”

“We didn’t need to call the police. They were here all over the place,” Mr. Jackson said.

Dr. King was in Memphis to lead a massive march Sunday to prove — in the face of last week’s riot — that he could conduct a peaceful march.

His attorneys went to court today to challenge a Federal court ban on the march. They said his march would be “orderly and peaceful.”

The arguments, being heard by U.S. District Judge Bailey Brown, continued late into the day.

Purpose of Demonstrations

Acting at the city’s request yesterday, Brown issued a temporary restraining order preventing Dr. King, his associates, or other outsiders from staging a march in Memphis. A demonstration led by Dr. King a week ago sparked violence that resulted in one death, 62 injuries and 276 arrests.

The avowed aim of the demonstrations was to support Memphis’ sanitation workers, most of whom are Negroes, in their strike for pay raises and the right to union representation.

Monday’s proposed march had drawn the support of two New York labor leaders, who have served notice they would come here with 1,000 marchers despite the injunction.

Victor Gotbaum, head of District Council 37 of the State, County and Municipal Employees union, the group that seeks to represent the sanitation workers, and John J. Delury, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, said three planes carrying 500 demonstrators would leave New York’s Kennedy Airport Monday morning. Others, they said, would leave during the weekend by bus and auto.

During the course of today’s court hearing, Judge Brown asked Police Chief J.C. MacDonald if he thought Memphis would remain quiet Monday if the restraining order were continued.

“If the court allows any sort of march we’re going to need some help,” said MacDonald.