After JFK was shot, when asked: "What is it like to walk under this constant threat?", MLK replied:
"Well it's often difficult - but when you live with it so long you almost become immune to being afraid as a result of these threats. I guess you have to come to the point of looking at these things philosophically - and this is where I have decided to stand. I believe that this cause it right - and that someone must have the courage and the fortitude to stand up for it - even if it means suffering, or even if it means death. And i have always felt that American suffering is redemptive - and even if I have to die for this cause, and physical death is a price that others will have to pay - then it is a price that is paid to free the soul of our nation, and to free our children from a permanent spiritual death. And in this sense, I think it is very redemptive (or it can be) even if it occurs."
— Martin Luther King Jr. (November 22, 1963)
Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American clergyman, activist, and prominent leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights in the United States and around the world, using nonviolent methods following the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. King has become a national icon in the history of modern American liberalism.
A Baptist minister, King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, serving as its first president. King's efforts led to the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. There, he expanded American values to include the vision of a color blind society, and established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history.
In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other nonviolent means. By the time of his death in 1968, he had refocused his efforts on ending poverty and stopping the Vietnam War.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2004; Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986.
Gandhi and Rustin
With assistance from the Quaker group the American Friends Service Committee, and inspired by Gandhi's success with non-violent activism, King visited Gandhi's birthplace in India in 1959.:3 The trip to India affected King in a profound way, deepening his understanding of non-violent resistance and his commitment to America's struggle for civil rights. In a radio address made during his final evening in India, King reflected, "Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.":135–6 African American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin had studied Gandhi's teachings. Rustin counseled King to dedicate himself to the principles of non-violence, served as King's main advisor and mentor throughout his early activism, and was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin's open homosexuality, support of democratic socialism, and his former ties to the Communist Party USA caused many white and African-American leaders to demand King distance himself from Rustin.
Public stance on political parties
As the leader of the SCLC, King maintained a policy of not publicly endorsing a U.S. political party or candidate: "I feel someone must remain in the position of non-alignment, so that he can look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both—not the servant or master of either."
In a 1958 interview, he expressed his view that neither party was perfect, saying, "I don't think the Republican party is a party full of the almighty God nor is the Democratic party. They both have weaknesses ... And I'm not inextricably bound to either party."
King critiqued both parties' performance on promoting racial equality:
Actually, the Negro has been betrayed by both the Republican and the Democratic party. The Democrats have betrayed him by capitulating to the whims and caprices of the Southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed him by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of reactionary right wing northern Republicans. And this coalition of southern Dixiecrats and right wing reactionary northern Republicans defeats every bill and every move towards liberal legislation in the area of civil rights.
Personal political advocacy
Although King never publicly supported a political party or candidate for president, in a letter to a civil rights supporter in October 1956 he said that he was undecided as to whether he would vote for the Adlai Stevenson or Dwight Eisenhower, but that "In the past I always voted the Democratic ticket."
In his autobiography, King says that in 1960 he privately voted for Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy: "I felt that Kennedy would make the best president. I never came out with an endorsement. My father did, but I never made one." King adds that he likely would have made an exception to his non-endorsement policy in 1964, saying "Had President Kennedy lived, I would probably have endorsed him in 1964."
Opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War
Starting in 1965, King began to express doubts about the United States' role in the Vietnam War. In an April 4, 1967 appearance at the New York City Riverside Church—exactly one year before his death—King delivered a speech titled "Beyond Vietnam". He spoke strongly against the U.S.'s role in the war, insisting that the U.S. was in Vietnam "to occupy it as an American colony":107 and calling the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today".:102 He also argued that the country needed larger and broader moral changes:
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just.":109
King also was opposed to the Vietnam War on the grounds that the war took money and resources that could have been spent on social welfare services like the War on Poverty. The United States Congress was spending more and more on the military and less and less on anti-poverty programs at the same time. He summed up this aspect by saying, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death".:109
King's opposition cost him significant support among white allies, including President Johnson, union leaders and powerful publishers. "The press is being stacked against me," King complained. Life magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi",:109 and The Washington Post declared that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.":148
King stated that North Vietnam "did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had arrived in the tens of thousands".:106 King also criticized the United States' resistance to North Vietnam's land reforms. He accused the United States of having killed a million Vietnamese, "mostly children."
The speech was a reflection of King's evolving political advocacy in his later years, which paralleled the teachings of the progressive Highlander Research and Education Center, with whom King was affiliated. King began to speak of the need for fundamental changes in the political and economic life of the nation. Towards the time of his murder, King more frequently expressed his opposition to the war and his desire to see a redistribution of resources to correct racial and economic injustice. Though his public language was guarded, so as to avoid being linked to communism by his political enemies, in private he sometimes spoke of his support for democratic socialism. In one speech, he stated that "something is wrong with capitalism" and claimed, "There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism."
King had read Marx while at Morehouse, but while he rejected "traditional capitalism," he also rejected Communism because of its "materialistic interpretation of history" that denied religion, its "ethical relativism," and its "political totalitarianism."
King also stated, in his "Beyond Vietnam", speech that "true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar ... it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring".:122 King quoted a United States official who said that, from Vietnam to Latin America, the country was "on the wrong side of a world revolution.":122 King condemned America's "alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America," and said that the United States should support "the shirtless and barefoot people" in the Third World rather than suppressing their attempts at revolution.
King spoke at an Anti-Vietnam demonstration where he also brought up issues of civil rights and the draft.
I have not urged a mechanical fusion of the civil rights and peace movements. There are people who have come to see the moral imperative of equality, but who cannot yet see the moral imperative of world brotherhood. I would like to see the fervor of the civil-rights movement imbued into the peace movement to instill it with greater strength. And I believe everyone has a duty to be in both the civil-rights and peace movements. But for those who presently choose but one, I would hope they will finally come to see the moral roots common to both.
In 1967, King gave another speech, in which he lashed out against what he called the "cruel irony" of American blacks fighting and dying for a country which treated them as second class citizens:
We were taking the young black men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. ... We have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them in the same schools.
On January 13, 1968, the day after President Johnson's State of the Union Address, King called for a large march on Washington against "one of history's most cruel and senseless wars".
We need to make clear in this political year, to congressmen on both sides of the aisle and to the president of the United States, that we will no longer tolerate, we will no longer vote for men who continue to see the killings of Vietnamese and Americans as the best way of advancing the goals of freedom and self-determination in Southeast Asia.
The Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated, is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.
"I've Been to the Mountaintop"
On March 29, 1968, King went to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of the black sanitary public works employees, represented by AFSCME Local 1733, who had been on strike since March 12 for higher wages and better treatment. In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.
On April 3, King addressed a rally and delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address at Mason Temple, the world headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. King's flight to Memphis had been delayed by a bomb threat against his plane. In the close of the last speech of his career, in reference to the bomb threat, King said the following:
And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
King was booked in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, owned by Walter Bailey, in Memphis. The Reverend Ralph Abernathy, King's close friend and colleague who was present at the assassination, testified under oath to the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations that King and his entourage stayed at room 306 at the Lorraine Motel so often it was known as the "King-Abernathy suite."
According to Jesse Jackson, who was present, King's last words on the balcony prior to his assassination were spoken to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at an event King was attending: "Ben, make sure you play 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty."
Then, at 6:01 p.m., April 4, 1968, a shot rang out as King stood on the motel's second floor balcony. The bullet entered through his right cheek, smashing his jaw, then traveled down his spinal cord before lodging in his shoulder. Abernathy heard the shot from inside the motel room and ran to the balcony to find King on the floor. The events following the shooting have been disputed, as some people have accused Jackson of exaggerating his response.
After emergency chest surgery, King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital at 7:05 p.m. According to biographer Taylor Branch, King's autopsy revealed that though only 39 years old, he had the heart of a 60-year-old man, perhaps a result of the stress of 13 years in the civil rights movement.
The assassination led to a nationwide wave of race riots in Washington D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, Louisville, Kentucky, Kansas City, and dozens of other cities. Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was on his way to Indianapolis for a campaign rally when he was informed of King's death. He gave a short speech to the gathering of supporters informing them of the tragedy and urging them to continue King's ideal of non-violence. James Farmer, Jr. and other civil rights leaders also called for non-violent action, while the more militant Stokely Carmichael called for a more forceful response.
President Lyndon B. Johnson declared April 7 a national day of mourning for the civil rights leader. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey attended King's funeral on behalf of the President, as there were fears that Johnson's presence might incite protests and perhaps violence.
At his widow's request, King's last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church was played at the funeral, a recording of his "Drum Major" sermon, given on February 4, 1968. In that sermon, King made a request that at his funeral no mention of his awards and honors be made, but that it be said that he tried to "feed the hungry", "clothe the naked", "be right on the [Vietnam] war question", and "love and serve humanity". His good friend Mahalia Jackson sang his favorite hymn, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord", at the funeral.
The city of Memphis quickly settled the strike on terms favorable to the sanitation workers.
Two months after King's death, escaped convict James Earl Ray was captured at London Heathrow Airport while trying to leave the United Kingdom on a false Canadian passport in the name of Ramon George Sneyd on his way to white-ruled Rhodesia. Ray was quickly extradited to Tennessee and charged with King's murder. He confessed to the assassination on March 10, 1969, though he recanted this confession three days later. On the advice of his attorney Percy Foreman, Ray pleaded guilty to avoid a trial conviction and thus the possibility of receiving the death penalty. Ray was sentenced to a 99-year prison term. Ray fired Foreman as his attorney, from then on derisively calling him "Percy Fourflusher". He claimed a man he met in Montreal, Quebec, with the alias "Raoul" was involved and that the assassination was the result of a conspiracy. He spent the remainder of his life attempting, unsuccessfully, to withdraw his guilty plea and secure the trial he never had. On June 10, 1977, shortly after Ray had testified to the House Select Committee on Assassinations that he did not shoot King, he and six other convicts escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee. They were recaptured on June 13 and returned to prison.
Allegations of conspiracy
Ray's lawyers maintained he was a scapegoat similar to the way that John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is seen by conspiracy theorists. One of the claims used to support this assertion is that Ray's confession was given under pressure, and he had been threatened with the death penalty. Ray was a thief and burglar, but he had no record of committing violent crimes with a weapon.
Those suspecting a conspiracy in the assassination point to the two successive ballistics tests which while proving that a rifle similar to Ray's Remington Gamemaster had been the murder weapon, did not prove that his specific rifle had been the one used. Moreover, witnesses surrounding King at the moment of his death say the shot came from another location, from behind thick shrubbery near the rooming house—which had been inexplicably cut away in the days following the assassination—and not from the rooming house window.
Martin Luther King & Coretta Scott King's tomb, located on the grounds of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1997, King's son Dexter Scott King met with Ray, and publicly supported Ray's efforts to obtain a new trial. Two years later, Coretta Scott King, King's widow, along with the rest of King's family, won a wrongful death claim against Loyd Jowers and "other unknown co-conspirators". Jowers claimed to have received $100,000 to arrange King's assassination. The jury of six whites and six blacks found Jowers guilty and that government agencies were party to the assassination. William F. Pepper represented the King family in the trial.
In 2000, the United States Department of Justice completed the investigation about Jowers' claims but did not find evidence to support allegations about conspiracy. The investigation report recommended no further investigation unless some new reliable facts are presented. In 2002, The New York Times reported a church minister, Rev. Ronald Denton Wilson, claimed his father, Henry Clay Wilson—not James Earl Ray—assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. He stated, "It wasn't a racist thing; he thought Martin Luther King was connected with communism, and he wanted to get him out of the way." Wilson provided no evidence to back up his claims.King biographer David Garrow disagrees with William F. Pepper's claims that the government killed King. He is supported by author Gerald Posner who has researched and written about the assassination. In 2003, William Pepper published a book about the long investigation and trial, as well as his representation of James Earl Ray in his bid for a trial, laying out the evidence and refuting other accounts.
King's friend and colleague, James Bevel, disputed the argument that Ray acted alone, stating, "There is no way a ten-cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man." In 2004, Jesse Jackson, who was with King at the time of his death, noted:
The fact is there were saboteurs to disrupt the march. And within our own organization, we found a very key person who was on the government payroll. So infiltration within, saboteurs from without and the press attacks. ... I will never believe that James Earl Ray had the motive, the money and the mobility to have done it himself. Our government was very involved in setting the stage for and I think the escape route for James Earl Ray.