Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The decade’s greatest force for interracial peace and understanding, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot to death while campaigning for civil rights, representing a tragedy for the United States and creating a wave of conspiracy theories about the circumstances of his murder.

Summary of Event

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s proved to be one of the most consequential social and political episodes in American history. Dedicated activists effectively worked to eliminate racial barriers that had denied millions of black people basic citizenship rights in the Jim Crow South. The movement produced numerous leaders, but none was more identifiable than Martin Luther King, Jr., a highly educated and articulate Baptist minister from Atlanta, Georgia. For more than a decade, his name was synonymous with the struggle for African American civil rights in the United States. Assassinations and attempts;Martin Luther King, Jr.[King] African Americans;civil rights leaders Civil Rights movement;violence [kw]Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Apr. 4, 1968) [kw]Martin Luther King, Jr., Assassination of (Apr. 4, 1968) [kw]King, Jr., Assassination of Martin Luther (Apr. 4, 1968) Assassinations and attempts;Martin Luther King, Jr.[King] African Americans;civil rights leaders Civil Rights movement;violence [g]North America;Apr. 4, 1968: Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.[09720] [g]United States;Apr. 4, 1968: Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.[09720] [c]Terrorism;Apr. 4, 1968: Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.[09720] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Apr. 4, 1968: Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.[09720] King, Martin Luther, Jr. [p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;assassination Ray, James Earl Abernathy, Ralph Parks, Rosa Connor, Bull

King, a charismatic figure, encountered little difficulty in rallying support around his causes and leadership style. Influenced by the teachings of Morehouse College president Benjamin Mays, India’s Mahatma Gandhi, and the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and by the social gospel of Walter Rauschensbusch, he developed a protest philosophy that blended religion with issues of justice, human and civil rights, and a vision of an ideal American society.

King was the Civil Rights movement’s greatest exponent of nonviolent Nonviolence mass civil disobedience Civil disobedience . He rose to national prominence in 1955 as the leader of the Montgomery (Alabama) Improvement Association’s boycott against the city’s racially segregated bus line. Black passenger Rosa Parks precipitated the boycott with her arrest for refusing to surrender her seat to a white rider. The boycott successfully desegregated the buses. It also helped initiate a period of mass protest that not only challenged Southern segregation and black disenfranchisement but also influenced human rights issues in foreign countries.

Many of the subsequent campaigns that affected Southern life were led by King through his own Southern Christian Leadership Conference Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). An occasional failure, such as the SCLC’s 1961-1962 Albany, Georgia, initiative to eliminate segregation ordinances and discriminatory hiring practices, did not discourage King. A foray in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963 produced more tangible results. King, ably assisted by Ralph Abernathy, his closest friend and handpicked SCLC successor, resolved to change downtown hiring practices and to escalate the pace of court-ordered desegregation in schools and public facilities. Unlike in Albany, King employed the tactic of passive resistance with telling effect, as the demonstrators defied local law and taxed the patience of police chief Bull Connor. On national television news, Americans watched with abhorrence the acts of police brutality against the protesters, many of whom were children; they were similarly outraged over King’s and Abernathy’s solitary confinement in the Birmingham jail. The demonstrations eventually helped win major advances for Birmingham African Americans.

King utilized the Birmingham campaign to raise the national consciousness about the morality of civil rights causes. In the process, he enhanced his own prestige and leadership position. That stature was further strengthened by his August 28, 1963, “I Have a Dream” speech "I Have a Dream" speech (King)[I Have a Dream speech] during the March on Washington March on Washington (1963) campaign. Addressing 250,000 persons assembled at the Lincoln Memorial as well as a national television audience, King expressed his continuing faith in America’s ideals. Speaking in his characteristic rhythmic cadence, he stirred the nation with his “dream” of an America free of racial prejudice and bigotry. The address was perhaps King’s finest hour as an orator. King continued to garner national and international acclaim for his work. By the end of 1964, he had won Time magazine’s prestigious Man of the Year award and had been honored as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Both recognitions further solidified his position as the United States’ preeminent leader in the struggle for African American civil rights.

Sensitized national leaders reacted to King’s and other black leaders’ efforts with concrete legislation. The comprehensive 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination and segregation in key aspects of American life. In the same year, King’s Selma, Alabama, campaign for black voting rights provoked savage white police reaction against demonstrators similar to that in Birmingham. Congress responded to incidents in Selma and to black voting demands with an extensive law effectively enfranchising Southern blacks, the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Before 1965, King had confined his civil rights activities primarily to the segregated South. Such efforts, however, did not preclude a concern for oppressed people worldwide. Almost from the outset of his activism, he linked America’s black struggle to human rights issues elsewhere, particularly in Africa. He spoke boldly against South African apartheid and supported the move to end colonialism across the continent. His attendance at independence celebrations in Ghana in 1957 and Nigeria in 1960 helped endear him to citizens of those emergent developing nations.

Increasingly after 1965, King’s attention turned to opposing America’s Vietnam involvement and to the problems of African Americans and poor urbanites in Northern cities. These initiatives produced considerably less than the desired results. His antiwar stance cost him important white Northern support, and his efforts in cities such as Chicago won for African Americans few substantive gains in better housing and employment. Nevertheless, King’s internationalism and his inclusion of human rights and economic justice in a broadened civil rights agenda inspired plans for a major campaign to encourage massive federal spending to fight poverty rather than war. He would not, however, have the opportunity to lead this ambitious Poor People’s March on Washington.

King’s urban concerns took him to Memphis, Tennessee, in the early spring of 1968. His purpose there was to support striking municipal sanitation workers seeking recognition of their recently formed union. A demonstration planned on their behalf for March 28, 1968, ended violently when youthful members of a local black gang fought with police and vandalized stores along the route. Discouraged, King canceled the demonstration and promised to return to lead another march that would adhere to his nonviolent philosophy. In the late evening of April 4, 1968, several days before the scheduled second march, King was mortally wounded by a sniper while standing on the balcony near his room at Memphis’s Lorraine Hotel.

King’s meteoric rise to international prominence clearly had not occurred without challenges and personal dangers. A 1958 stabbing in New York by a mentally disturbed black woman had made clear the grave risks that accompanied public stature and recognition. It was the nature of his activism that provoked the greatest opposition and made him a logical target of racial extremists. King was acutely aware of this; death threats and bomb scares constantly reminded him of it. An emotional speech to a church audience the night before his assassination was so interspersed with veiled references to dying that it makes credible his aides’ suggestions that King saw his death as imminent.

If King readily envisioned his own death, it seemed not to trouble his lieutenants. They, too, fully understood the dangers inherent in his role, but they had witnessed his preoccupation with death before and were not overly concerned with his latest mood. King’s assassination was certainly unexpected, and it generated a range of emotions from close associates, but few of them seemed truly surprised that such an event could happen.

After one of the nation’s most intensive manhunts ever, James Earl Ray, an escaped Missouri felon with decidedly antiblack racial views, was captured, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment for King’s murder. In many black communities, however, suspicion surfaced that Ray did not act alone. Long after the trial, charges were rampant of a King conspiracy that implicated the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). No conspiracy evidence was ever substantiated in King’s murder, however.


The reaction to King’s death was universal. The international community memorialized him and recognized his impact on human rights developments beyond the United States. American leaders praised his commitment to nonviolence and acknowledged his role in influencing many of the social and political changes affecting American life, especially in the South. Even King’s militant rivals lamented his passing and predicted dire national social consequences because of it.

Such predictions resulted largely from the violence that the assassination triggered in many American communities. Rioting struck Memphis almost immediately, as black youths vented their anger and frustration over yet another fallen symbol. In Washington, leaders pleaded for calm, but the national capital and 130 other cities could not be spared from violent disturbances in the emotional wake of the assassination. The disorders caused forty-six deaths and property damage exceeding $100 million.

This violent response hardly represented the vast black majority, who memorialized King in more traditional and peaceful ways. Nevertheless, the consequences of the riots were far-reaching. King’s death virtually assured congressional passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act providing for open housing, legislation that King had long supported. That act was the last major civil rights legislation of the era. A growing conservative white backlash concerned about law and order stiffened its resolve against further minority demands.

Civil rights leaders seemed unable to reverse the trend. Before King died, the movement had already splintered badly over the issues of nonviolence and Black power. It continued to founder after his death. Historians have debated whether King and his enlarged agenda of human rights, economic justice, and international peace could have stemmed the reversal, but his SCLC successor could not. Despite renewed fears of violence, in June, 1968, Abernathy led King’s Poor People’s Campaign in Washington peacefully; however, it accomplished little. Lacking both King’s charisma and his leadership qualities, Abernathy soon fell from power and sank into relative obscurity.

King was not the first leader-activist felled by white racism. In the five-year period before his death, America had anguished over the loss of several others, including Medgar Evers, James Chaney, and Viola Liuzzo. To many African Americans, however, King was not merely another beloved figure victimized by racism. For most, he embodied their hopes and aspirations to enjoy the full benefits of American citizenship. He spoke for them, articulating their demands in a way that, it seemed, only he could. In life, he symbolized the black struggle, and in the years following his death no leader emerged who was capable of mobilizing the masses as he did.

In death, King’s image became even more powerful, taking on new meaning and symbolism. In the nation’s cumulative memory of King’s work and vision, he was transformed from martyr to virtual demigod. A national holiday was declared to honor his life, and annual King celebrations were inaugurated in several West African countries. Long after his death, he continued to represent the idealism of the 1950’s and 1960’s civil and human rights struggle. Assassinations and attempts;Martin Luther King, Jr.[King] African Americans;civil rights leaders Civil Rights movement;violence

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abernathy, Ralph D. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. A controversial memoir of King’s dearest friend and civil rights associate. It gives a good account of the inside strategies and operations behind the SCLC’s campaigns. It is particularly valuable for its revealing portrait of the nonpublic part of King’s life. Pictures, appendix, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ansbro, John J. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1982. An interesting study of King’s nonviolent resistance strategy that examines doctrines and insights of the many thinkers who influenced him. In some ways, this study criticizes King as a person who appropriated the ideas of others. Includes references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bishop, Jim. The Days of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971. Written for a popular audience, this readable volume is primarily the story behind King’s assassination and the responses of those close to him. Includes a bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. A comprehensive study dealing with an important period of King’s life. This prize-winning book is superbly written and is especially valuable because of its focus on King from the context of his origins in the larger black religious culture, a base from which other civil rights leaders also originated. Includes notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frank, Gerold. An American Death: The True Story of the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Greatest Manhunt of Our Time. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. The subtitle suggests this volume’s basic content. The book is valuable for its extensive research and coverage of James Earl Ray and his trial and for Frank’s attempts to answer the questions that suggested a conspiracy in King’s murder. Includes notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrow, David. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow, 1986. This massive book comes from the scholar who has most thoroughly studied King and his civil rights role. A Pulitzer Prize winner, the volume ends rather abruptly with King’s death. It has vast references and an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. An intimate account of the Kings’ life together. It depicts the impact of King’s work on the leader himself and on his family. Pictures and a useful index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Martin Luther, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait. New York: New American Library, 1964. One of several books authored by King. It provides his personal prescription for progress in the civil rights struggle. Considered a classic by King scholars, it includes his protest and reform philosophy and is an appropriate beginning for understanding King’s thoughts and motivations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, William Robert. Martin Luther King, Jr.: His Life, Martyrdom, and Meaning to the World. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1968. This book appeared in the immediate aftermath of King’s death. The title suggests much about Miller’s presentation. It contains sound conclusions about King’s legacy. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. The work of an accomplished biographer, this study is comprehensive, absorbing, and well written but notably reverent of its subject. Oates taps previously unused sources. Contains references and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Posner, Gerald. Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace, 1999. An attempt at a reasoned, objective evaluation of alternative theories about King’s assassination, focused on the life of the man who confessed to the murder but ultimately claimed to be an innocent fall guy. Sifts through evidence and conspiracy theories to separate fact from fiction. Bibliographic references and index.

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Categories: History