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UPDATED: 8:00 a.m. ET, April 4, 2023
Tuesday marks the 55th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s assassination in Memphis.
The civil rights legend’s assassination remains one of the most highly-investigated and second-guessed murders of our time. While James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to killing the civil rights leader, Coretta Scott King and other inner circle members suggested that Dr. King was a “victim of a conspiracy.” Because of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s perception of Dr. King and his assumptions about his politics, those who embraced prejudice also turned their backs on him and his ideals. It was obvious that the government started to view Dr. King as a threat. Nothing made that clearer than how the FBI investigated his behaviors and sought to turn his following against him. And once a powerful force gains access to information that can taint a leader’s reputation, it can also aim to disrupt or even end an entire movement.
There are those of us whose parents and grandparents followed and respected him. So much so that we know certain facts about Dr. King’s life and assassination like the back of our hands. We know who is responsible, where it happened, where he was headed before things went awry, and the plans he had for the people of Memphis and the rest of the world. And then, there are those other facts that we aren’t aware of that can perhaps help us better understand what he was up against and the level of his impact.
Here are five facts about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
1. There had been a previous attempt to assassinate him.
Before his death at the hands of James Earl Ray, Dr. King had survived being attacked by a mentally ill woman during his book tour in Harlem, New York, in 1958. He was signing copies of his first book, “Stride Towards Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” at a department store when Izola Ware Curry approached and asked him if he was Dr. King and, upon receiving confirmation, stabbed him in the chest with a seven-inch-long letter opener.
The blade landed just inches away from his aorta leading him to require emergency surgery. He remained in the hospital for over a month to recover. The delusional Curry, who had been stalking Dr. King for more than six years, believed he was working with Communists to conspire against her. It was reported that she was also carrying a loaded pistol but was stopped before she could get to it. Ten years later, during his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Dr. King shared that his physicians said the blade had been lodged so close to his heart it would have pierced his artery had he even so much as sneezed.
2. The reverend’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech drew attention to an ongoing sanitation workers’ strike.
In the weeks leading up to Dr. King’s assassination, sanitation workers in Memphis had been striking against unsafe conditions. The strike began on Feb. 12, 1968, sparked by the deaths of two garbage workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who had been crushed by malfunctioning equipment on the trucks. Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered in Memphis on April 3, the day before he was gunned down, drew attention to the union workers’ plight and requests.
It was his last major public address and somewhat prophetic that he would speak about the almost fatal stabbing years earlier and basically assert that he was not afraid to die. A few days after Dr. King’s assassination, his widow, Coretta Scott King, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) personnel continued his support of the workers by leading a rally of more than 40,000 people through the streets of Memphis. Their efforts helped secure a better hourly wage for sanitation employees within a week of DR. King’s death.
3. Outraged by his assassination, supporters of Dr. King took to the streets.
Civil unrest followed the announcement of his death. As Americans sought to express their grief and anger, about 3,500 people were injured, 43 were killed, and 27,000 were arrested as outbreaks of rioting, looting, arson, and violence took over more than 100 cities. The turmoil was compared to the Civil War in that close to 60,000 National Guardsmen and army troops were assigned to join forces with local police stations to calm the crowds of demonstrators.
4. Doors were shut, and ceremonies were postponed as the country (and the world) mourned.
In the wake of Dr. King’s murder, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered that public libraries, museums, businesses, and schools shut their doors. Three days after Dr. King’s assassination, Johnson called for a national day of mourning. The Academy Awards board also postponed the 40th annual ceremony for a few days later than it was originally scheduled, one of only four times the event has ever been put on hold.
5. It was later discovered that the FBI had sent a strange letter to Dr. King threatening to taint his reputation unless he committed suicide.
In 2014 The New York Times published an uncensored version of a letter that the FBI had sent to Dr. King after delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech in August of 1963. The agency hinted at its plan to release details about the reverend’s sexual history in an effort to denounce him as a “King” and a “doctor.” In addition to the letter’s publication, a report was also released exposing just how committed the FBI (and its former director, J. Edgar Hoover) was to ruining the civil rights leader’s reputation, having had him under surveillance for some time. Hoover’s involvement seemed personal and was sparked by his belief that Dr. King was a Communist sympathizer. After determining that this was inaccurate, Hoover still approved continued FBI harassment of Dr. King. In the letter, which was sent to his home along with recordings of his interludes with other women, they used monikers like “colossal fraud” and “evil abnormal beast” to describe him, saying that “there is but one way out for you” with hopes of coercing him into committing suicide. Although the missive was unsigned, Dr. King and his team correctly deduced that it was from the FBI.
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