His last words were to musician Ben Branch who was scheduled to perform that night at an event and standing in the parking lot below: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Sing it real pretty.”
On the evening of Thursday, April 4, 1968, at 6:01 p.m., James Earl Ray shot and killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The bullet entered through King’s right cheek, breaking his jaw and several vertebrae as it traveled through his spinal cord, severing his jugular vein and major arteries in the process, before lodging in his shoulder. He was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he died at 7:05 p.m.
In 1968, the Lorraine Motel was owned by African-American businessman Walter Bailey and named after his wife. King’s closest aide, Ralph Abernathy, later told the House Select Committee on Assassinations that they had stayed in Room 306 so often it was known as the “King-Abernathy Suite.” After learning that King had been killed, Mrs. Bailey suffered a stroke and died five days later.
Visiting the Lorraine Motel is a moving experience. It is emotional. You are immediately drawn back into history 50 years ago as you look up at the balcony and hear the sheer panic and pandemonium immediately after the shot.
Peering into Room 306, you see unmade beds. King had been in bed conducting meetings for much of the day while fighting a cold. You see cigarette butts in an ashtray and his unclosed briefcase with his book “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story” tucked inside, amidst other files and his personal toiletries. Clearly the room’s occupants were expecting to return. However, the history of the world would change when King opened the door and only one guest would.
The boarding house where Ray was staying is now part of the Memphis National Civil Rights Museum. As I stood in his bathroom from where he fired the fatal shot, I wondered what was going through Ray’s mind as he looked through his rifle scope and saw King leaning over the balcony. Did he see:
• A son, brother, husband and father?
• An ordained priest of the church?
• Someone who had skipped both the ninth and 12th grades and entered Morehouse College at age 15?
• One who had been stabbed by a demented African-American woman while signing copies of “Stride Toward Freedom?”
• Someone who had traveled to India to visit Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace and rededicated himself to the practice of nonviolence?
• A man who had been arrested 29 times as well as beaten and spat upon?
• One who had shared his dream with the world and been greeted afterwards by President Kennedy in the Oval Office with the words, “I have a dream?”
• Someone who, against the counsel of many, called for America to withdraw from Vietnam?
• A man only in Memphis to support a strike by African-American sanitation workers protesting segregated and dangerous work conditions?
• A prophet who, as he opened his hotel door and stepped onto the balcony to meet our Divine Creator, had received over 400 honorary degrees and awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize?
Finally, as Ray squeezed the trigger and ended King’s life, did he see someone though only 39 years old, had the heart of one 60, having lived under the cloud of a violent death for the last 13 years of his life?
Fortunately, Ray’s sense of accomplishment as he witnessed King slump onto the balcony was short-lived. By firing that shot, he ensured that the dream would live on in ways that neither King nor his assassin could have imagined.
Oddly enough, in his final speech the night before his assassination, King spoke directly to Ray when he said, “And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats or talk about that threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick White brothers. I am not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man.”
Unfortunately, Ray did not have an open heart to hear King or he would have put his rifle away without firing a shot.
So, on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I am left to wonder if America is finally willing to listen to King on the issues of guns, war, peace, poverty and racial inequality? Or will far too many Americans only see America through the rifle scope of James Earl Ray?
Cooper is president of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc.