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Martin Luther King, Jr.

Assassination and Legacy

Final Years

Study & Essay

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.

But King's death did not prevent the realization of his planned protests. Thousands of supporters came from miles around, flooding Memphis and making the sanitation workers' strike a success. That summer, the Poor People's March took place without King, though on a smaller scale than he had imagined. The SCLC and Coretta Scott King continued much of what King had begun.

But King's major legacy was the pieces of federal legislation passed in 1964 and 1965. In his final years, King had failed somewhat to engage the broad-based support he had earlier enjoyed: while the Christian socialist vision of his later period proved too radical to affect white mainstream Americans, his non- violent tactics had remained too peaceful to satisfy the rising tide of black militancy. However, the fact remained that King, more than any other leader, had been responsible for both the abstract and the concrete achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. King had dreamed and had acted.

Amercian minorities enjoyed an initial flurry of political empowerment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 began to affect local elections. However, after this progress started to slow, and has remained comparatively sluggish. The "white flight" from cities to suburbs has left behind decaying neighborhoods with weak tax bases and de facto segregated schools. Affirmative action programs have come under attack, especially by right-wing politicians. Celebrations of King often downplay his radical economic vision while highlighting his moments of upbeat–and unthreatening– liberal rhetoric. The irony of his treatment as a national hero was perhaps most evident in the establishment of the holiday honoring him–effected as it was by the staunchly anti-communist Reagan Administration.

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