4 April 1968: Martin Luther King was assassinated

On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray.

Born on 15 January 1929, Dr King went on to be one of the most famous social activists of the 20th century; spending the majority of his life fighting for equal rights for African Americans in the United States. King first came to prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, initiated after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. He continued to help co-ordinate the broader movement into the 1960s, making waves whilst helping to lead the March on Washington of 1963, the scene of his famous ‘I have a dream speech’. This was a part of a broader non-violent movement that had the aim of desegregating public facilities, whilst also granting African Americans the vote.

Through his inspirational speeches and prodigious activism, King became one of most famous faces in the United States of America. But he was not backed by all. His participation within the Civil Rights Movement meant that King was no stranger to death threats. He had previously told his wife after the assassination of John F. Kennedy: “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.”

It would appear that King predicted his own future. On 4 April 1968, whilst staying in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, he was shot whilst standing on the balcony of his hotel room. King was rushed to St Joseph’s hospital in Memphis, but the shot had been fatal, and doctors were unable to revive King. He died aged 39.

King’s death sparked a nationwide response. The distress prompted riots in over 100 cities across the country and an international outcry of lament. President Lyndon B Johnson cancelled his upcoming meetings in order to focus on the nation, declaring 7 April as a national day of mourning dedicated to King.

An immediate investigation into the assassination was launched but it was not until June that the perpetrator – James Earl Ray – was caught at London Heathrow Airport. He was quickly extradited to Tennessee, where he was charged with King’s murder. For this crime, he was given a prison sentence of 99 years.

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