Remembering Martin Luther King Jr 50 Years After Assassination

 

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, 50 years ago on April 4, 1968, setting off a period of mourning, reflection and anger that gripped America. He was in Memphis to rally support for striking sanitation workers, who were protesting unsafe working conditions, and while on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel (now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum), he was shot once and fatally by James Earl Ray, from the bathroom of a nearby boarding house.

By the age of 39, King had become a primary leader of the civil rights movement and had been active since the 1950s as a minister and founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was an instrumental figure in protests (in Montgomery, Washington, Selma and elsewhere) and in the passage of landmark civil and voting rights legislation. He had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at 35. In the last years of his life, King faced criticism from some African-American activists who wanted him to employ more confrontational strategies for change. At the same time, he had become more outspoken on issues of poverty and the need to end the war in Vietnam, significantly in the "Riverside Church" speech, delivered in New York a year to the day before his death.

 

The assassination reverberated powerfully around the world, especially in American cities, where the tragedy sparked unrest in Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, Kansas City, Missouri, and elsewhere. The following week, riots broke out in dozens of cities, in multiple instances warranting the intervention of the National Guard.

King's death (like that of Malcolm X only a few years earlier) radicalized some activists who saw futility in his strategy of nonviolence. At the same time, widespread public mourning for King was key in the passage -- only days after his assassination -- of the Fair Housing Act, the final significant civil rights legislation of the era. President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill creating a national holiday in King's name in 1983, and King's vision remains the foundational lexicon of the fight for racial equality in the United States.

 
 
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