A well-known leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent protesting. Considered one of the most outspoken, influential public figures of the era, the FBI began to tap his phone after he criticised inequality and the Vietnam War. In August 1963, during The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he delivered his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, which is still considered one of the most moving in the country’s history. During his career King received many death threats which he publicly acknowledged, insisting that murder wouldn’t stop the fight for equal rights.
On April 4, 1968, King, and a colleague, Ralph Abernathy, had checked into their regular room (306) at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Their visits to the hotel were so frequent that the room had been affectionately nicknamed ‘The King-Abernathy Suite.’ At 6:01pm, King was standing on the balcony when he was hit by a single bullet. When Abernathy rushed out, he found his friend unconscious and bleeding profusely from a wound in his cheek. The prominent leader was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where doctors opened his chest and attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Despite their best efforts, Martin Luther King Jr. never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead at 7:05 pm.
Shortly after the shot had been fired, witnesses noticed a man running from the scene, who was later identified as James Earl Ray. Further investigations revealed that Ray had rented a room at the Lorraine Motel. A package was also recovered nearby that contained a pair of binoculars and a rifle, both with the suspect’s fingerprints. Ray had purchased the gun six days earlier, using an alias. The FBI declared a worldwide manhunt for the career criminal, who was arrested two months later at Heathrow Airport, in London, and extradited.
Ray initially pled guilty, choosing to forgo a trial, but recanted his confession three days later. Based on his original statement, he was denied further opportunity for a trial and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Throughout his sentence, he repeatedly claimed that the murder had been planned by others. This resulted in numerous conspiracy theories, including rumours claiming that the FBI had been responsible for King’s assassination. On June 10, 1977, Ray escaped from Bushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, along with six other prisoners. Several days later, on June 13th, all the escapees were recaptured, and a year was added to Ray’s sentence. After serving 29 years, James Earl Ray died in prison due to complications from Hepatitis C.
Martin Luther King remains an African-American legend, and his birthday, January 15th, is now celebrated as a national holiday. As he had predicted, his death could not stop the fight for equality, and days after King’s assassination congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act. The Act continues to provide equal housing opportunities regardless of race, colour, religion or national origin.