In his final years, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had death on his mind.
While watching news coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he turned to his wife, Coretta, and told her, "This is what is going to happen to me." All his adult life, this practitioner of nonviolence had been threatened, assaulted, and surrounded by people — most of them white, some of them black — who considered him their enemy. The FBI routinely released memos documenting his activities, with the heading "Martin Luther King — Communist." Andrew Young, one of the leaders of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, observed that King had questioned "fundamental patterns of American life" and had therefore "become the enemy" to many Americans.
So as he headed to Memphis in the spring of 1968, to hold what he hoped would be a peaceful demonstration in support of the sanitation workers' strike here, King knew his life was in grave danger. "There's no way in the world you can keep somebody from killing you," he told a reporter, "if they really want to kill you."
And he knew Memphis would be a challenge. The sanitation strike had dragged on into its fifth week, and the situation seemed hopeless. Jerry Wurf, international head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) had complained bitterly, "I spent half my time trying to keep that city from burning down, while the god-damned mayor was pouring gasoline on the situation as I ran around pulling matches out of people's hands."
King's supporters had dire premonitions. On the night following the dreadful riot of March 28th, the Rev. James Jordan, pastor of historic Beale Street Baptist Church, woke up in tears. He later told friends that he'd had a nightmare: "Dr. King's picture came before me. I saw the Lord had shown me Dr. King's death."
When King decided to return to Memphis on April 3rd, to salvage his reputation and show the world that he could indeed preach the gospel of nonviolence with a second march on April 8th, a bomb threat delayed his flight. Ralph Abernathy, his second-in-command at the SCLC, reassured him, "Nobody is going to kill you, Martin," but King still seemed deeply troubled. Later that day, however, he told supporters, "I would rather be dead than afraid."
Then came his famous speech that blustery evening of April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple. With the wind howling outside and banging the shutters around the packed auditorium, he seemed to pause and reflect for a few seconds, then said, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I have 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 . . ."
Within 24 hours, he would be felled by an assassin's bullet. On these pages we present the storm of events that surrounded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his final hours in Memphis. >>>
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 3rd
10:33 a.m. — Dr. Martin Luther King arrives at the Memphis airport, along with other SCLC leaders, including Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Bernard Lee, and Dorothy Young. The Rev. James Lawson, pastor of Memphis' Centenary United Methodist Church and a nationally renowned civil-rights leader, meets him at the gate. King is told that a Circuit Court judge has issued an injunction blocking the march proposed for Monday April 8th. "Martin fell silent," says Abernathy. "Nothing was going right."
10:50 a.m. — Four members of the Memphis Police Department (MPD) — among them black undercover officers Ed Redditt and Willie Richmond — also show up at the airport and tell King's entourage they will escort them through the city. Lawson ignores them, but the police follow along anyway.
11:00 a.m. — Solomon Jones, a driver provided by R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home, takes King to Lawson's church at 584 E. McLemore for a brief strategy meeting to discuss the march that is scheduled for April 8th.
11:30 a.m. — Still trailed by the MPD's Redditt and Richmond, Jones drives King and Lawson to the Lorraine Motel, 406 Mulberry, where he checks into Room 306 — a fact that is reported in the newspapers and on television broadcasts. King is determined to stay at the black-owned motel, after being chastised by the Memphis newspapers when he retreated to the Holiday Inn Rivermont to escape the riots that disrupted the March 28th demonstration.
11:45 a.m. — White police detective Don Smith and other MPD officers tell black officers Redditt and Richmond they are no longer needed at the Lorraine. Smith says "he will take it from there." Sometime later in the afternoon, the MPD leaves the Lorraine, claiming they had been asked to do so by the SCLC staff — something that King's associates vehemently deny. Richmond relocates across the street to Fire Station #2, 484 South Main, where he monitors the people coming and going at the Lorraine through a slit in the station's papered-over windows. Redditt, given no specific assignment, remains in the area.
12 noon — King and Abernathy enjoy a catfish lunch at the Lorraine Motel's grill.
12 noon — The Rev. Frank McRae, a district superintendent of the Methodist Church, lunches with Mayor Henry Loeb in City Hall to discuss the King situation: "I kept saying, 'Henry, you're sitting on a powder keg. Please realize this." Loeb refuses to compromise his position that the strike — any strike by government employees — is illegal.
12:40 p.m. — Circuit Court Judge Bailey Brown tells King attorneys Louis Lucas and Walter Bailey that he will present a temporary restraining order preventing King (or anybody else) "from organizing or leading a parade or march in the city of Memphis." If he doesn't comply, King will be jailed for contempt of court. Also representing King in court that afternoon are Memphis attorneys Lucius Burch, Michael Cody, Charles Newman, and David Caywood, among others.
1:00 p.m.— Attorneys Burch, Cody, Newman, and Caywood drive to Lawson's church with a copy of the restraining order issued by Judge Brown, but discover King has already left. They confer with attorneys Bailey and Lucas and agree to join forces and represent King and the SCLC. They drive to the Lorraine Motel.
1:30 p.m. — Rev. Frank McRae convenes a meeting at St. Mary's Episcopal Church between members of the city's black and white clergy. The conciliatory atmosphere deteriorates immediately when Temple Israel's Rabbi James Wax says, "We need to limit this discussion to find out what the issues are." Another minister remembers that prominent NAACP leader and AME pastor Ralph Jackson "just came unwound, saying, 'I thought at long last my white brothers had decided to help their poor black brothers. You not only tricked me, you insult me by saying what we're going to discuss is what the issues are. . . . We've had thirteen hundred starving families. That 's the issue.'" An older white minister tries to maintain order and begins, "Now, my dear brethren, you've got to be Christian about this. We must love. If our 'nigra' brethren . . . ." He is cut off by the Rev. Ezekiel Bell, pastor of Parkway Gardens Presbyterian Church, who lectures him, "The word N-E-G-R-O is not nigra , it's 'knee-grow.' You ministers talk about love, and black people can't even get into the doors of your churches." After an hour of bickering, the meeting comes to an end.
2:00 p.m. — Burch and his fellow attorneys meet King at the Lorraine Motel. Burch says, "I wanted to be sure myself that these people were who they purported to be." King tells Burch that if the injunction is not lifted, he will hold a march anyway: "His whole future depended on having a nonviolent march in Memphis."
4:00 p.m. — King meets with Charles Cabbage, a self-styled leader of the militant group called the Invaders, at the Lorraine Motel. King wants reassurance that the Invaders will not disrupt his second march, though there is still debate if they were responsible for the rioting and looting that disrupted the protest on March 28th. King wants Cabbage to provide 25 marshals to monitor the march set for April 8th. Cabbage is there for a different reason: He wants the SCLC to provide funding for his Black Organizing Project (BOP). An FBI informant reports that the BOP is "uncontrollable, unpredictable, contentious, avaricious, and attempting to con the SCLC out of operating funds."
5:00 p.m. — King steps into the Lorraine Motel driveway to receive the official injunction from a federal marshal. A news photographer captures him laughing at the incident. Historian Michael Honey explains King's reaction: "It seemed absurd to think a court injunction at this point could stop the huge march being planned for Memphis."
5:15 p.m. — King continues to discuss the injunction with the attorneys in his motel room. Abernathy joins them and brings a catfish dinner from the Lorraine.
6:00 p.m. — Burch returns to court to schedule a hearing on the injunction for the following morning. He and his attorneys, along with Bailey and Lucas, then return to the Burch, Porter and Johnson law offices in the old Tennessee Club building downtown to work on getting the injunction lifted. Burch says later, "The white community didn't realize that Martin Luther King was the best friend anybody had. He was the answer to the fire bombing and he was the answer to the looting and he was the answer to Black Power." The lawyers work until 3 a.m. and finally go home. "Except for Burch," remembers Bailey. "I think he slept in his office."
6:00 p.m. — Thunderstorms begin to move into Memphis from Arkansas.
7:00 p.m. — More than 3,000 sanitation workers and supporters of the strike gather at Mason Temple, 930 Mason Street, hoping to hear King speak, though he is not scheduled to appear until the following evening. King, nursing a sore throat, remains at the Lorraine, but Ralph Abernathy calls him and tells him to come tonight : "I had sense enough to know that this was not my crowd."
7:15 p.m. — James Earl Ray, described by one biographer as "a habitual criminal, at war with society, hopelessly alone," arrives in Memphis, driving a white Mustang (some sources say it was actually faded yellow). He checks into the Rebel Motel, 3466 Lamar, and signs the register as Eric S. Galt. Desk clerk Henrietta Hagemaster assigns him to Room 34.
7:30 p.m. — Tornado sirens begin moaning across the city.
9:00 p.m. — King arrives at Mason Temple and receives a standing ovation. Abernathy gives him a 25-minute introduction, complete with jokes and stories. Another minister chastises him: "We thought you weren't going to make a speech. Didn't you know that they came to hear Martin?"
9:30 p.m. — King begins his famous "Mountaintop" speech, beginning by noting, "Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world." He also tells about the time a woman walked up to him in a department store and stabbed him in the chest, narrowly missing his heart. Lawson, listening off to one side, thought the murder attempt was an odd subject to discuss: "I said to myself, 'I've never heard him do that in public in quite that way.'"
10:00 p.m. — Tornados and thunderstorms sweep across Shelby County. Wind gusts repeatedly slam into the shutters of Mason Temple with a BANG as lightning flashes outside.
10:15 p.m. — King continues: "And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But then it really doesn't matter to me now." He pauses. "Because I have been to the mountaintop."
10:20 p.m. — Ivan Webb, night desk clerk at the Rebel Motel, notices the lights remain on all night in Room 34. Honey writes, "Ray watched television news as it casually pictured King entering Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. Ray knew right where to find him."
10:30 p.m. — King concludes his speech with, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!" and takes a seat, his eyes wet with tears. Honey writes, "Pandemonium swept Mason Temple as people came to their feet — applauding, cheering, yelling, crying." Another minister observes, "When he sat down, he was just crying. He sure was." Preachers sometimes cried, but he had never seen King do it. "This time it seemed like he was just saying, 'Goodbye, I hate to leave.'"
10:45 p.m. — King and Abernathy drive to Benjamin Hooks' house at 1860 South Parkway East for a late-night meal.
THURSDAY, APRIL 4th
1:15 a.m. — King's younger brother, Alfred Daniel (called A.D. by everybody), arrives at the Lorraine Motel with some associates, having driven there from Miami. They meet with other SCLC leaders for hours.
4:00 a.m. — King, Lee, and Abernathy finally return to the Lorraine Motel and visit with A.D. for about an hour, when King goes to bed.
8:00 a.m. — Lawson, AFSCME national organizer Jesse Epps, and the Rev. Ralph Jackson, a vocal civil-rights leader and pastor of St. Andrews AME Church, meet at The Peabody, 149 Union, for a strategy breakfast.
8:00 a.m. — Judge Bailey Brown meets in Circuit Court with Andrew Young and attorneys Burch, Lucas, Bailey, Caywood, Cody, and Newman to hear their request about lifting the restraining order. They suggest restrictions if the April 8th march is allowed to proceed. MPD director Frank Holloman admits that he would rather see King lead a march than anybody else. According to historian Joan Beifuss, he also testifies, "He had definite information that Negroes had been buying guns and ammunition in wholesale in adjoining Arkansas, and there had been a theft of guns and ammunition from a city sporting goods store the very night before."
9:00 a.m. — Black and white ministers meet again at Mississippi Blvd. Christian Church, 976 Mississippi Blvd., to continue their discussion from the day before. Rabbi Wax argues that more demonstrations at City Hall, even a meeting with Loeb himself, would be futile at this stage, but "the Negro ministers did not take keenly to my notion of not marching or appearing." Again, the meeting accomplishes nothing.
10:00 a.m. — Loeb sits in on Brown's courtroom for a short time but says nothing.
10:30 a.m. — A large group of Invaders, led by Charles Cabbage, meets in Room 315 at the Lorraine Motel to argue that the SCLC needs to fund their Black Organizing Program if they expected help with the April 8th march. King attends the meeting briefly, tells them, "I don't negotiate with brothers," and walks out of the room. The Invaders leave the motel.
12 noon — King and Abernathy share a catfish lunch in King's motel room.
12 noon – The meeting in Judge Brown's court holds a lunch break. Chauncey Eskridge, King's personal attorney and friend, arrives from Atlanta. Andrew Young, the SCLC's executive vice president, talks after lunch, arguing that mass marches call attention to injustice in a nonviolent way. Brown concludes the meeting at 4 p.m.
12 noon – Police continue their surveillance of King and his associates at the Lorraine Motel. For reasons never made clear, two black firefighters — Norvell Wallace and Floyd Newsum — are transferred to other fire stations that day. The two police officers responsible for monitoring King are both black undercover "community relations" officers: detective Ed Redditt and patrolman Willie Richmond.
12:50 p.m. — A woman calls Fire Station #2 and tells Redditt that everyone knows he is an undercover cop, and "spying was an offense against his people." This is not the first threat he has received during King's stay in Memphis, so MPD officials remove him from his post and tell him to take his family into hiding. He is replaced with another black policeman at the station. Richmond remains at the fire station, watching activities at the Lorraine through slits in the paper covering the windows.
1:00 p.m. — King and his brother A.D. call their mother in Atlanta, later hold an "impromptu SCLC meeting." They and members of the local Community on the Move for Equality (COME) talk about putting some members of the Invaders on the SCLC staff. The Rev. Harold Middlebrook with COME believes, "Maybe exposure to Dr. King and his staff would give them the idea of being nonviolent."
3:00 p.m. — More than a dozen members of the U.S. Army's 111th Military Intelligence Group also monitor King's activities from various downtown locations. At one point, they watch the Lorraine Motel from the rooftop of Fire Station #2.
3:00 p.m. — Memphis businessman Ned Cook meets with Loeb at City Hall and tells him that "the responsible element of the Negro community thought the thing was getting out of hand." According to Beifuss, "There was a brightening in the mayor's office."
3:00 p.m. — Bandleader Ben Branch with Chicago's Operation Breadbasket (a community organization that encouraged support for black-owned businesses) gathers a small band in one of the rooms at the Lorraine Motel to rehearse for the mass meeting later that night at Mason Temple. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, pastor of Monumental Baptist Church, join in singing old hymns: "Yield Not to Temptation," "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned," and "I'm So Glad Trouble Don't Last Always."
3:00 pm — Ray drives to a nondescript rooming house at 422 South Main Street and asks about a room. He "unnerves" manager Bessie Brewer because he had a "sneer and a smile" and she doesn't think he would "fit in" with her other tenants. But money is money. She takes him to Room 8 in the south wing of the complex. Ray notices the room doesn't give him a view of the Lorraine Motel just behind the rooming house, so he tells her, "Well, I don't need the stove and refrigerator because I won't be doing any cooking. I was thinking more of a sleeping room."
3:15 p.m. — Brewer shows Ray Room 5B, a tiny room with just a bed, chair, and dresser in the north wing. The window gives a partial view of the Lorraine, and by leaning out the window, Ray figures he can watch Room 306. "I'll take it," says Ray. "Where is the bathroom?" Brewer shows him the bathroom at the end of the hallway, just two doors down. Charles Stephens, next door in 6B, opens his door and sees Ray inspect the room. Ray goes downstairs and pays $8.50 (one week's rent), giving his name as John Willard. No one sees him bring the Remington Game Master .30-06 pump-action rifle into the rooming house.
3:30 p.m. — Gwendolyn Kyles, the wife of the Rev. Billy Kyles, is looking forward to a big evening in her home at 2215 South Parkway East: "There was so much moving around, no home-cooked meals, restaurant food, having a plate brought over from the hotel, and sandwiches. So Billy came home and told me about it and we set out to get all of the soul food we could find." She begins cooking dinner for King and a dozen other important guests, who plan to dine there before the mass rally at Mason Temple. "We had the mood set where [King] could just relax."
3:45 p.m. — Ray drives a few blocks north to York Arms, a sporting goods store at 162 South Main, and asks about purchasing field glasses. The selection is limited. When Ray balks at paying $90 ("That's a little expensive"), salesman Ralph Carpenter reaches into a window display and offers him a pair of Bushnell binoculars for $41.55. Ray asks if they come with instructions. "You really don't need instructions," he tells his customer. "You just place them to your eyes and adjust the eyepieces."
4:30 p.m. — Ray drives back to the boarding house, parks his Mustang a few doors away and sits in the car for several minutes. Elizabeth Copeland and Frances Thompson, employees of Seabrook Wallpaper across the street, notice him in the car.
4:30 p.m. — Andrew Young returns to the Lorraine Motel to give King an update on the situation in Judge Bailey Brown's courtroom. King chastises him for not telling them anything sooner: "Why don't you call and let me know what's going on? We're sitting here all day long waiting to hear from you." They eventually start laughing and even get into a pillow fight. "Occasionally, he would get into those kinds of hilarious moods," says Young.
5:00 p.m. — King jokes with Lorene Bailey, the wife of motel owner Walter Bailey, about having dinner that evening with the Kyles. "If he don't have good food out there, like that catfish we had," he tells her, "I'm going to come back and eat here."
5:00 p.m. — Eighteen local business leaders meet at The Peabody to discuss ways to settle the strike. As with every other meeting held across the city that day, they don't come to any conclusions. "It was a cold audience," says Memphis Labor Council secretary Bill Ross, "and a last-ditch, desperate attempt."
5:30 p.m. — King and Abernathy dress for dinner. Because King's skin is so sensitive, he "shaves" by using a homemade depilatory. He kids Kyles that his wife had better serve "real" soul food that evening. ("Not like at that preacher's house. We went over there and had some ham. A ham bone.") To his colleagues, he seems in a good mood. "This is like the old Movement days, isn't it?" he asks Kyles, who slumps on the bed as the other two dress. "That first speech when I got here! When I got to the temple and saw all those people — you couldn't have squeezed two more in if you tried. This really is the old Movement spirit." Kyles remembers, "It was just preacher talk, like people talk baseball talk or barbershop talk." He and Abernathy joke with King when he can't button the tight collar on his shirt, so he pulls another one from his suitcase.
5:30 p.m. — Rooming house tenants hear the man in 5B walk back and forth to the bathroom several times. Stephens in 6B gets irritated when he can't get in to rinse out some dishes. He estimates that Ray spends more than a half-hour in the bathroom, though he hears the toilet flush only once. Ray tries to open the window and it jams halfway up.
5:45 p.m. — Solomon Jones waits in the Lorraine Motel courtyard with the white Cadillac loaned by R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home. Ben Branch and Jesse Jackson are also in courtyard, along with attorney Chauncey Eskridge and King aides Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, Bernard Lee, and James Orange. Other motel guests stand nearby, along with photographers Ernest Withers and Joseph Louw, and a reporter for The New York Times .
5:50 p.m. — Three police cars and a dozen officers return to Fire Station #2 after monitoring the daily march from Clayborn Temple to City Hall. Most of the men go inside to grab a cup of coffee and to take a break, while others mill about outside.
5:55 p.m. — Waiting for Abernathy, King steps out onto the balcony outside Room 306. Down in the parking lot, Jackson says to King, "Doc, this is Ben Branch. Ben used to live in Memphis. He plays in our band." King leans over the railing to tell Branch he remembers him, but jokes that he can't bring his whole band to the Kyles' house, and comes back inside. Abernathy returns to his own room, next to King's, to put on aftershave.
5:55 p.m. —At the fire station, a fireman, George Loenneke, asks policeman Richmond if he can look through the binoculars for a few minutes. He watches as King steps back onto the balcony outside Room 306 and talks to the people below.
6:00 p.m. – King leans over the railing and tells Branch to "play 'Precious Lord' like you've never played it before." Branch says, "Dr. King, you know I do that all the time." King responds, "But tonight, especially for me. I want you to play it real pretty." Branch says, "I will, Doc," and tells him to put on an overcoat, since it might be chilly later.
6:00 p.m. — From 207 feet away, Ray steps into the bathtub of the boarding house bathroom, pokes the rifle barrel out of the window, and sights quickly through the scope.
6:01 p.m. — King straightens up and begins to turn back towards his room to get a coat. He had been in Memphis 31 hours and 28 minutes.
6:01 p.m. — Ray pulls the trigger. M
Note: Memories fade after 40 years, and historical accounts vary, so some times are approximate. Sources: Michael Honey, Going Down Jericho Road ; Joan Turner Beifuss, At the River I Stand ; Gerald Posner, Killing the Dream ; and newspaper files and photographs archived in the 1968 Sanitation Workers' Strike Collection at the Ned McWherter Library, University of Memphis.