As a broadcast journalist for half a century, I have covered thousands of stories and have been an eyewitness to history. Some events have faded from memory with time while others remain seared and everlasting, like that night in April, 46 years ago, when Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered.
I was a young reporter with the Mutual Broadcasting System who was dispatched to Memphis immediately after bulletins flashed that the civil rights leader had been shot.
America was erupting in violence as I boarded a plane and sat next to veteran CBS correspondent Ike Pappas, who had experienced the violence of war during his recent assignment in Vietnam. As we began our approach into Memphis our plane was jolted, apparently by turbulence, but I will never forget looking into the face of fear as Pappas suddenly awakened with the belief that we had been a target of an attack by rioters below.
Memphis was already under siege as we made our way to the Lorraine Motel, which had been cordoned off by police. It was almost 12 hours after Dr. King fell mortally wounded in front of room 306, as he was heading out to dinner. I quickly gathered as much information as I could to file my first report for our 6 a.m. broadcast. There was a chill in the air as daylight filtered through the early morning clouds. It was the dawning of one of the darkest days in American history.
There was something so surreal. The contrast of stone-faced police officers overseeing an active crime scene against a backdrop of mourners in the parking lot of the motel. Associates of Dr. King, their eyes swollen with tears and dozens of local grief-stricken African-Americans raced to the scene after learning that their leader with a vision was dead. He was only 39 and he had come to Memphis to lead a march in support of a unionization effort by sanitation workers.
In front of the motel, members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference spoke of Dr. King’s greatness and expressed fears of the negative impact of his death on the future of the civil rights movement. A young Rev. Jesse Jackson first emerged in the spotlight as the self-declared spokesman for the King family. Though I hadn’t heard him say it personally, it was reported that at first he claimed to have “cradled” the dying leader in his arms.
As I spoke to people close to Dr. King and others who were with him in the days and hours before his murder, I learned that he might have prophesized his own death. In a speech the night before, he spoke at the Mason Temple of threats that had been made on his life. My notes are fading now, but the words are indelibly clear.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead”, he said. “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 concluded with the declaration, “I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything.”
24 hours later Dr. Martin Luther King was dead.
It was quickly determined that the assassin’s bullet came from a dilapidated rooming house on Main Street, in plain sight of the Lorraine Motel about 200 yards away. Once police had completed their investigation there, I managed to sneak inside to speak to residents.
Bessie Brewer’s Rooming House at 422 ½ Main Street was a two-story building. It was impoverished. Paint was peeling from the walls and ceiling. Steps were broken and creaky. Above all, I will never forget the stench permeating the place. Rather than run down the hall to the lone bathroom, some residents used a large metal pretzel can to collect their urine and feces. I spoke to one resident who told me he heard a shot and saw a man run from the bathroom. The description he gave police and me later matched that of the killer James Earl Ray.
I learned that Ray had checked into the motel about three hours before the shooting and was assigned to room 8, but had it changed to room 5B, which overlooked the Lorraine Motel. With the police sweep completed, I seized an opportunity to stand at the perch from which the assassin took aim.
With one foot on the ceramic bathtub and the other on, I believe either the sink or toilet, I leaned on the ledge of the window facing the Lorraine Motel. I spoke into my recorder and described the sights of a killer. I realized that one did not have to be a marksman to make the shot of a subject 200 yards away, particularly with a high-powered rifle with a scope.
Ray, who checked into the flophouse under a different name, made a clean getaway, but left a bag full of evidence behind. It was a blue bag that contained some clothing, a pair of binoculars, a couple of beer cans and a radio with his prison i.d. engraved on it. Next to it was a green blanket with a high-powered Remington rifle with his fingerprints. It took awhile, but Ray was eventually tracked down in London and brought back to the U.S., where he was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Other observations in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination: About 60 American cities were rocked by riots, including Memphis. A curfew was in effect as I walked along the darkened street that was the birthplace of the blues, Beale Street There was an eerie silence along the desolate street usually aglitter with flickering neon lights and the sounds of the blues and jazz emanating from the dozens of clubs along the famed neighborhood. In contrast, there was the sound of broken glass beneath my shuffling feet and the occasional rumble of a military vehicle passing by.
A local National Guard unit invited me to join them on patrol. It was a bit disconcerting as they placed me on the highest point at the rear of the Jeep without a protective helmet. We cruised the debris-littered streets, looking for looters and snipers. The guardsmen with me were young. One was 19 another 20. They had so much bravado and they waved their carbines in the air. I was a “damn Yankee” in their midst, and was appalled when one of them swung his weapon around and declared: “I want to get me a N….. head tonight.” Some things you never forget. Eventually they rolled their jeep into an apartment complex where a girlfriend was throwing a party.
My most poignant memory of the events of 45 years ago was in the local funeral home where Dr. King’s body had been laid out. I was one of about four reporters who were inside when a number of civil rights leaders walked in. It was warm and it was emotional. About a dozen women in black dresses occupied the front rows, crying uncontrollably. Dr. King lay at peace in an open casket. He was dressed in a black suit. He bore no immediate visible signs of his violent death, except for a slight mark on his jaw that was torn apart by the bullet. The funeral home had done a remarkable job camouflaging the wound.
The Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, who assumed leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Andrew Young and two others stood over the casket. I was close enough to hear a choked up Abernathy murmur, “Martin, Martin,” as he reached out to gently touch him. The grief, and the magnitude of their loss was etched in their faces. They stood a moment in silence, and Rev. Abernathy led the group in recitation of the 23rd Psalm.
In the days that followed, the march that Dr. King came to support was held in Memphis with his widow at the lead. Five days after he was gunned down, there was a massive outpouring of thousands of people for his funeral in Atlanta. For me, it was also an emotional moment, because I had gotten to know Dr. King when he was alive. As a reporter I joined him a year earlier in a march through Mississippi.
I will never forget our conversation as we sat along a roadside during a break in the march. I asked him why he did this, why he put his life on the line. He told me, “For the children. For the children.”
And he spoke of his dream that someday this country would judge a man by his character and not by the color of his skin. 46 years after his death, Martin Luther King’s legacy lives on … and for me the memories of being with him in life and death remain as vivid as they were more than four decades ago.