On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., 39, was shot to death in Memphis, Tenn.
Dr. King was shot while he leaned over a second-floor railing outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. He was chatting with two friends just before starting for dinner.
One of the friends was a musician, and Dr. King had just asked him to play a Negro spiritual, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” at a rally that was to have been held two hours later in support of striking Memphis sanitation men.
Paul Hess, assistant administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where Dr. King died despite emergency surgery, said the minister had “received a gunshot wound on the right side of the neck, at the root of the neck, a gaping wound.”
“He was pronounced dead at 7:05 P.M. Central standard time (8:05 P.M. New York time) by staff doctors,” Mr. Hess said. “They did everything humanly possible.”
Dr. King had come back to Memphis Wednesday morning to organize support once again for 1,300 sanitation workers who have been striking since Lincoln’s Birthday. Just a week ago yesterday he led a march in the strikers’ cause that ended in violence. A 16-year-old Negro was killed, 62 persons were injured and 200 were arrested.
Yesterday Dr. King had been in his second-floor room- Number 306- throughout the day. Just about 6 P.M. he emerged, wearing a silkish-looking black suit and white shirt.
Solomon Jones Jr., his driver, had been waiting to take him by car to the home of the Rev. Samuel Kyles of Memphis for dinner. Mr. Jones said later he had observed, “It’s cold outside, put your topcoat on,” and Dr. King had replied, “O.K., I will.”
Dr. King, an open-faced, genial man, leaned over a green iron railing to chat with an associate, Jesse Jackson, standing just below him in a courtyard parking lot:
“Do you know Ben?” Mr. Jackson asked, introducing Ben Branch of Chicago, a musician who was to play at the night’s rally.
“Yes, that’s my man!” Dr. King glowed.
The two men recalled Dr. King’s asking for the playing of the spiritual. “I really want you to play that tonight,” Dr. King said, enthusiastically.
The Rev. Ralph W. Abernathy, perhaps Dr. King’s closest friend, was just about to come out of the motel room when the sudden loud noise burst out.
Dr. King toppled to the concrete second-floor walkway. Blood gushed from the right jaw and neck area. His necktie had been ripped off by the blast.
“He had just bent over,” Mr. Jackson recalled later. “If he had been standing up, he wouldn’t have been hit in the face.
“When I turned around,” Mr. Jackson went on, bitterly, “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.”
Mr. Branch asserted that the shot had come from “the hill on the other side of the street.”
“When I looked up, the police and the sheriff’s deputies were running all around,” Mr. Branch declared.
“We didn’t need to call the police,” Mr. Jackson said. “They were here all over the place.”
Mr. Kyles said Dr. King had stood in the open “about three minutes.”
Mr. Jones, the driver, said that a squad car with four policemen in it drove down the street only moments before the gunshot. The police had been circulating throughout the motel area on precautionary patrols.
After the shot, Mr. Jones said, he saw a man “with something white on his face” creep away from a thicket across the street.
Someone rushed up with a towel to stem the flow of Dr. King’s blood. Mr. Kyles said he put a blanket over Dr. King, but “I knew he was gone.” He ran down the stairs and tried to telephone from the motel office for an ambulance.
Mr. Abernathy hurried up with a second larger towel.
Policemen were pouring into the motel area, carrying rifles and shotguns and wearing helmets.
But the King aides said it seemed to be 10 or 15 minutes before a Fire Department ambulance arrived.
Dr. King was apparently still living when he reached the St. Joseph’s Hospital operating room for emergency surgery. He was borne in on a stretcher, the bloody towel over his head.
It was the same emergency room to which James H. Meredith, first Negro enrolled at the University of Mississippi, was taken after he was ambushed and shot in June, 1965, at Hernando, Miss., a few miles south of Memphis; Mr. Meredith was not seriously hurt.
Outside the emergency room some of Dr. King’s aides waited in forlorn hope. One was Chauncey Eskridge, his legal adviser. He broke into sobs when Dr. King’s death was announced.
“A man full of life, full of love, and he was shot,” Mr. Eskridge said. “He had always lived with that expectation- but nobody ever expected it to happen.”
But the Rev. Andrew Young, executive director of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, recalled there had been some talk Wednesday night about possible harm to Dr. King in Memphis.
Mr. Young recalled: “He said he had reached the pinnacle of fulfillment with his nonviolent movement, and these reports did not bother him.”
Mr. Young believed that the fatal shot might have been fired from a passing car. “It sounded like a firecracker,” he said.
In a nearby building, a newsman who had been watching a television program thought, however, that “it was a tremendous blast that sounded like a bomb.”
There were perhaps 15 persons in the motel courtyard area when Dr. King was shot, all believed to be Negroes and Dr. King’s associates.
Police were reported to have chased a late-model blue or white car through Memphis and north to Millington. A civilian in another car that had a citizens band radio was also reported to have pursued the fleeing car and to have opened fire on it.
In his career Dr. King had suffered beatings and blows. Once- on Sept. 20, 1958- he was stabbed in a Harlem department store in New York by a Negro woman later adjudged insane.
That time he underwent a four-hour operation to remove a steel letter opener that had been plunged into his upper left chest. For a time he was critical list, but he told his wife, while in the hospital, “I don’t hold any bitterness toward this woman.”