King's interest in a strike of black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in the spring of 1968 reflected his growing concern with economic issues. The workers wanted pay equal to that of whites. Taking time out from planning sessions for the Poor People's March, King flew to Memphis on 28 March to participate in a rally of 6000 people. The presence of Black Panthers in the crowd, however, and the violence they initiated, led King to remove himself and his supporters from the march that day.
King went back to Atlanta briefly for SCLC work, but returned to Memphis in time for a second march, which he hoped would be peaceful. King had stayed at the Holiday Inn during his first visit, but, on account of criticism that those accommodations were lavish, and despite security considerations, he checked into the Lorraine Motel in a black neighborhood closer to the protests.
On the evening of 4 April, after a pre-dinner organizational meeting, King stepped onto the balcony of his second floor motel room. He talked with friends on the ground below. After a few moments, a loud sound, like that of a firecracker, was heard, and King slammed against the wall behind him. From the rooming-house across the way, a sniper had shot King in the neck and head, and King died within the hour at St. Joseph's Hospital in Memphis.
The alleged assassin, James Earl Ray, was apprehended a month later in Heathrow Airport in London. He confessed to the killing, but retracted his confession after he had been imprisoned. There is much speculation that the FBI was involved in King's death.
Upon news of the assassination, riots erupted nation-wide. President Johnson declared 7 April a national day of mourning–but mourning in many places took the form of violence and arson. The number of riots totaled 168; the number of arrests, 3000; the number of injuries, over 20,000; and the number of soldiers called in to restore order, 55,000.
Funeral services were held at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, which held 750 of the 150,000 people who appeared to pay their last respects. Robert, Ethel, and Jacqueline Kennedy visited Atlanta, as did Richard Nixon. Burgeoning television star Bill Cosby came and spent time with King's children. King was buried near his grandparents in the all-black South View Cemetery.