This last episode of the online course explores the final days and events leading up to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
By the fall of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr., felt strongly disappointed about the increasing racial violence, declining support for racial reforms, and continued economic hardship many black communities faced. Together with SCLC, King announced the Poor People’s Campaign, which would bring the impoverished population across all races to Washington D.C. and call for congressional action to end poverty.
In the spring of 1968, King decided to join the protests of the sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The protesters demanded higher wages, better working conditions, and the right to form unions. On March 18, King arrived in Memphis to deliver a speech to inspire the sanitation workers and to aid the local movement. However, as violence irrupted during a demonstration, King felt compelled to return to Memphis, hoping to prove that nonviolent tactics will bring favorable results. Some SCLS leaders criticized King’s involvement in Memphis as a distraction to his larger project of the Poor People’s campaign. King, however, hoped that success in Memphis would strengthen his broader efforts on behalf of the disadvantaged and poor. On April 3, 1968, King spoke at a mass rally promising the sanitation workers that justice would prevail. He linked their local struggle to the broader theme of human struggle for justice and the right to decent human existence. On the following day, April 4, before heading out to dinner with the local minister, King stepped outside his motel room where he was staying. While standing on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel, King was shot dead. James Earl Ray confessed to the killing, although he insisted he was acting for others.
The news of King’s death led to a nationwide outburst of violence claiming the lives of 46 people. King’s funeral took place on April 9 in Atlanta at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, attended by his wife Coretta, his family, and many of the nation’s political and civil rights leaders. The shared grief brought a short moment of national unity but failed to overcome the deepening political and racial division. By early summer, The Poor People’s Campaign disbanded, and the SCLC’s work declined in effectiveness without King’s leadership.