It was a cool spring evening in Memphis, Tenn. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood outside on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel speaking with his aids about upcoming events. His music director, Ben Branch, would later share that they were discussing the musical programming for a future event. Twenty-four hours earlier, King gave a moving speech as he prepared the audience for another march. We now know his final, fervent words to the crowded hall at Mason Temple Church were prophetic:
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's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. 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!
And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
The next day, on that second floor balcony, Dr. King would speak his last words—ever. He was right; he would not get to the Promised Land with those he was speaking to that night. With a sound that was described as a firecracker exploding, a bullet was shot that pierced King’s chin and then his spine. One hour after receiving that wound, he was pronounced dead on April 4, 1968, around 7:00 p.m.
Dr. King’s assassination shocked the Civil Rights community, the nation and the world. King had led the non-violent Civil Rights Movement since the mid-1950s, but his physical activity and presence ended at the young age of 39. Though he is gone, his ministry and influence continues to live and move among us.
When Dr. King died, I was not even a thought in my mother and father’s minds and wouldn’t be born for another decade. But many today still remember what it was like to learn of his death. It shouldn’t surprise us that for some—like many of the responses to world events today—there was little to no response at all. It didn’t affect their lives or their worldview at the time. And yet for others, the news was shocking and nearly devastating. We read the account in history books, but they lived those days and experienced the aftermath. The stories of others brings this day, the day Dr. King was assassinated, to life. Here are a few short reflections of those who were alive the day the news broke:
Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. | Age 21 at the time of Dr. King's death and a student at Hampton University in Hampton, Va.
During that time, the Black Consciousness Movement was on the rise, and the influence of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement was declining. I was shocked and shaken by the violent reaction to his death. It seemed that all the progress we had made in race relations was up in the smoke of our burning cities. The future seemed bleak and filled with uncertainty. Even now, a day doesn’t go by for me without the thought of Dr. King.
Dr. George Marsden | Age 29 when Dr. King was shot and was teaching at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
I believe I learned of it from alarmed housemates. We were all admirers of Dr. King and were upset. We watched quite a few news broadcasts about it. It was a very demoralizing moment.
Yolande Watson | Age 25 when Dr. King was assassinated; lived in Orlando, Fla.
Being a beginning teacher, I was grading papers at home. It came up on the TV, and I couldn't believe what I was hearing! Of course that ended my grading papers. I was glued to the TV and I was completely devastated! I thought, “How could someone do that?” Unbelievable!
Tom Strode | Age 16 when Dr. King was assassinated, living in a Southeast Missouri town less than 150 miles from Memphis.
I recall hearing reports, but I cannot recall anything about where I was when I first learned of this grievous act. Sadly, I cannot recall what my response was either, other than, I believe, sadness over his loss of life. Looking back, I think it is likely an indictment of the worldview I had as a church-going, yet unconverted, teenager in a Southern Baptist congregation. My culture, more than the Bible, controlled my worldview. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the necessity of the Civil Rights Movement or the courage of Dr. King and others in upholding the truth all people are equal image bearers of God. I am grateful he and others were willing to give, or risk, their lives in a noble cause.
K. Marshall Williams | Age 16 at the time Dr. King was assassinated. Learned of the assassination while sitting in his Jr. High School classroom in Paoli, Penn., just outside of Philadelphia.
I was distraught as my teacher told us what happened! I can remember being broken-hearted, crying profusely, as he was my hero. I didn't know what this world was coming to, and I didn't get any answers.
These stories remind us that what seems like a far-off event wasn’t that long ago. The reality of his death and the pain that it caused continues to be felt and experienced by many still living today. These recollections help me remember that there is yet work to be done in our nation, even as we’ve come so far. Let’s remember the history but not forget the triumph and progress our nation has made in racial reconciliation. God moves in mysterious ways—turning sorrows into laughter and tears into singing.