Pictures of the violence that gripped the U.S. in the wake of Dr. King's murder.
Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life," 39-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a congregation in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968. "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.... 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!"
The next evening at around 6 p.m., as Dr. King stood outside his room at Memphis's Lorraine Motel, a .30-06 caliber rifle bullet fired from a nearby rooming house tore through his jaw and neck, shattering bone, severing arteries. He was pronounced dead an hour later. Above: Joseph Louw's iconic picture taken moments after Dr. King was shot, with Andrew Young, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson (the latter two obscured) and others pointing in the direction of the shooter.
Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty ImagesUNRESTFor days after Dr. King was shot, major cities across the United States were rocked by some of the worst civil unrest the country had seen in a century ― a collective upheaval characterized by some as riots, and by others as a long-overdue popular revolt. Here, on the 50th anniversary of MLK's murder, FOTO offers a portrait of the 48 hours after the killing. Pictured: Memphis police respond to news of Dr. King's shooting, in the vicinity of the Lorraine Motel.Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty ImagesIN SHOCKRalph Abernathy (second from left), Andrew Young (third from left), Jesse Jackson (fourth from left), and others stand over Dr. King's body on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, minutes after he was shot. King's was the fourth assassination in the U.S. in less than five years of a high-profile and, to some, controversial figure ― after John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. It would not be the last. Two months later, an assassin named Sirhan Sirhan gunned down 42-year-old Robert F. Kennedy in the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel.
WARNING: This image might be disturbing for some viewers
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveCROSSHAIRSA view through a simulated telescopic gun sight shows what Dr. King's killer may have seen before he pulled the trigger. The photograph was made from the bathroom window of the nearby rooming house, from which (most investigators agree) the assassin fired his rifle.
James Early Ray (1928 – 1998) was seen running from the rooming house after the shooting, and was identified as the key suspect in the assassination. He eluded police for two months, but was finally apprehended in London. Back in the U.S., he confessed to the killing ― then quickly recanted, claiming his confession was coerced. In the years since the assassination, many people close to Dr. King, including all of his children, have stated repeatedly that they believe Ray either innocent of the crime, or a patsy in a larger conspiracy.Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesGRIM WORKOn the night of April 4, 1968, Theatrice Bailey, brother of the Lorraine Motel's owner, scrapes Dr. King's blood from the balcony where he was shot.
WARNING: This image might be disturbing for some viewers
SEE THE PHOTO
Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesSEEKING COMFORTCivil rights and religious leaders Ralph Abernathy (left) and Will D. Campbell (right) embrace and comfort one another in Dr. King's room at the Lorraine Motel after King's killing.Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty ImagesBOWED IN PRAYEROn April 5, 1968, the day after his murder, students participate in a prayer for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Julia Ward Howe School in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.Lee Balterman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesTHE FIRE THIS TIMEWhile cities like New York, Boston, and Indianapolis largely avoided wide-scale unrest and destruction, scores of other cities saw mass looting, arson, and other violence. In Washington, DC, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Kansas City, Chicago (pictured) and other places, hundreds of buildings were destroyed, thousands of people were arrested, and more than 40 were killed. More than 60,000 Army and National Guard troops were called out around the country to try and restore order.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveHARLEM BLAZEFirefighters battle a blaze set off during riots in Harlem the day after Dr. King was shot and killed in Memphis. Harlem, for decades the unofficial capital of black America, and other neighborhoods in New York City did see sporadic violence after the assassination, but New York saw less unrest than many other cities with far smaller African American populations.Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveWHOSE STREETS?Two days after Dr. King's murder, Illinois National Guard troops patrol a riot-scarred area of Chicago. Some cities avoided the fate of those that burned after the assassination. For example, while standing in a street in an African American neighborhood in Indianapolis, Robert F. Kennedy delivered a remarkably moving, improvised speech not long after MLK was shot ― a speech widely credited with defusing much of the tension that erupted into violence elsewhere. When he spoke of MLK's death in Memphis, it was the first time many in the crowd learned of the shooting. All these years later, hearing the screams of despair that greeted the news is still utterly chilling. [Watch RFK's Indianapolis speech.]Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveUNDER THE DOMEUnited States Army troops guard the Capitol after riots broke out in Washington, DC, following the assassination of Dr. King.National Archives/Getty ImagesWHITE HOUSEPresident Lyndon Johnson meets with political and civil rights leaders at the White House the day after the assassination of Dr. King.Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty ImagesBLACK AND PROUDCity Councilor Thomas Atkins, left, and Boston Mayor Kevin White, right, speak with James Brown at the Boston Garden, on April 5, 1968. There was concern in Boston that Brown's concert at the Garden, just one day after the assassination of Dr. King, might create further unrest in a city never known for its racial harmony and already on edge. Civic leaders and the show's producers decided to televise the concert so that Brown, who by then was a political force as well as an entertainer, could be widely heard. During the introduction of Mayor White in the midst of the telecast, Brown interjected, telling the crowd, "Just say he's a cool swinging cat."Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty ImagesA NATION'S CAPITALTwo people walk the streets of Washington, DC, on April 6, 1968.Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty ImagesTHE WORK GOES ONTwo days after Dr. King's assassination, demonstrators gather outside the Hotel Claridge in Memphis, where stalled talks between the striking sanitation union and city officials soon resumed. King had been in Memphis to lend his support and moral authority to the strikers and their cause.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchivePATROLTroops patrol Seventh Street in Washington, DC, two days after the assassination of Dr. King.Paul Sequeira/Getty ImagesAMID THE RUBBLEA man walks past the rubble of a burned out building on the West Side of Chicago, April 1968.Flip Schulke Archives/Corbis via Getty ImagesFAMILY HOMEA guard watches the King family home in Atlanta, Georgia, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty ImagesCHICAGO BLUEChicago police patrol the city following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968. More than 10,000 National Guard and regular U.S. Army troops were ordered into Chicago within 24 hours of Dr. King's murder while, according to the Chicago Tribune, mayor Richard Daley authorized police "to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand ... and ... to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores" in the city.Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesLAWNDALETwo days after Dr. King's murder, National Guardsmen stand in the street as a young boy pauses from riding his bicycle in Lawndale ― a neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago that Ta-Nehisi Coates once characterized as "one of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago," and a place that is "also achingly beautiful."Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveWHAT NEXT?An improbably still-functioning traffic light signals green before the burned-out shell of a building in Washington, DC, days after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.