Sunday, April 04, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Killing Of Dr. King


Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleague Ralph Abernathy had stayed in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel so often that it was given the unofficial nickname of the King-Abernathy Suite; for a man who'd been the subject of many death threats - including a notable bombing of his home in January 1956 - whatever comfortable familiarity the room offered him it also offered his foes the kind of access to him that was to be his downfall. The motel, at 450 Mulberry Street in the south end of Memphis, Tennessee, was owned by black businessman Walter Bailey; originally called the Windsor Hotel, it had hosted many black notables since its opening in the 1920s - especially during the days of segregation - given its proximity to Beale Street.

King had been in Memphis to support a walkout organized by black sanitation workers, who were seeking pay equity; the previous evening he'd addressed a crowd at the Mason Temple and delivered his famous speech I've Been to the Mountaintop, which received a thunderous ovation. In it he referred to the many threats against his person, and seemed at peace with the inevitability that one of them might be successfully carried out.

Shortly after 6 PM on this day in 1968, while standing on the hotel's balcony chatting with Jesse Jackson, Dr. King was fatally shot in the neck; the image above shows those traveling with King indicating where the single shot had come from, a boarding house across the street. Witnesses initially had trouble summoning an ambulance, however, because upon learning that Dr. King had been shot the hotel's switchboard operator - Mrs. Bailey, as it turns out, the woman for whom the motel had been named - had suffered a stroke that would claim her life only a few days later. King was eventually taken to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he died.

In the days that followed King's killing dozens of American cities erupted in racial violence; surely whatever his assassins had hoped to accomplish over and above cold-blooded murder, it can safely be said that they failed miserably. The Civil Rights movement - far from foundering - gained momentum in the years following the slaying.

Two months later James Earl Ray was captured at London's Heathrow Airport, traveling on a Canadian passport under the name Ramon George Sneyd; he was later tried and sentenced to 99 years' incarceration for the killing of Dr. King, although Dexter King (among other members of the King family) don't believe Ray to be guilty of plotting the crime, despite his confession, only carrying it out. King's widow Coretta Scott King believed her husband's murder had been orchestrated by Loyd Jowers, the owner of Jim's Grill, a restaurant conveniently located across the street from the Lorraine Motel.

The Lorraine Motel is now the National Civil Rights Museum; the events of King's last days on Earth have been dramatized in the play The Man in Room 306 by Craig Allen Edwards.

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