On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech in Memphis. King’s speech focused on the ongoing sanitation workers’ strike, and he reaffirmed his commitment to fight injustice with nonviolent protest, despite government injunctions and many threats on his life.
At the time, Memphis paid black workers significantly lower wages than whites. Several sanitation workers had been killed on the job due to unsafe working conditions. Unlike white workers, black workers received no pay if they stayed home during bad weather; consequently, most black workers were compelled to work even in the worst of conditions.
King was late getting to Memphis after his airline flight to was delayed by a bomb threat. Still, King made it to Memphis and delivered the speech. Nearing the close, he referred to the bomb threat:
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats… or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? “
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. 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. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
50 years ago today, Walter Cronkite broke the news to his television audience:
“Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee. Police have issued an all points bulletin for a well-dressed young white man seen running from the scene.”
After the speech, King stayed in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. His last words were to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at another event. King said: “Ben, make sure you play Take My Hand, Precious Lord in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
King went out onto the balcony and was standing near his room when he was struck by a single fired from a Remington Model 760 rifle. The force of the shot ripped off King’s necktie. King fell violently backward onto the balcony, unconscious. He was rushed to a hospital, where doctors performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead an hour after being shot.
As the news of King’s assassination spread, riots broke out in more than 100 cities across the USA, with some raging for several days. In the week following the shooting in Memphis, hundreds of buildings were burned, thousands of arrests were made, and more than 40 people lost their lives.
That night, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, running for the Democratic presidential nomination to represent the Democratic Party, spoke about the assassination in a speech in Indianapolis. His speech was at a venue in predominantly black neighborhood of the city.
The Indianapolis chief of police told Kennedy he could not provide protection and was worried he would be at risk in talking about the death of King. Kennedy, standing on a flatbed truck, told the audience that King had died. The attendees screamed and crued. Kennedy’s aides were worried that the delivery of this information would result in a riot. Kennedy told those assembled:
“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, and he was killed by a white man.”
Kennedy had never spoken publicly of his brother’s death. He quoted a poem by the Greek playwright Aeschylus:
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
His speech is credited with helping prevent rioting in Indianapolis, on a night where many major cities across the country were on fire. It is considered one of the greatest speeches in American History.
The Lorraine Motel is now part of the complex of the National Civil Rights Museum. A wreath marks the spot where King was shot.