Death of Martin Luther King, April 4, 1968

On this date, April 4, 1968, pastor and civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee.  His last days were spent raising awareness of a sanitation workers strike.  The day before, April 3, 1968, he had delivered a passionate speech which later became titled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”. 


Much celebration is given to Dr. King’s birthday (January 15, 1929) but it seems appropriate to spend time reflecting upon his final moments and the loss that the world experienced in the blink of an eye.  Below is King historian, Taylor Branch’s account of King’s final moments on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel which are taken from Branch’s extensive book, “At Canaan’s Edge: American in the King Years 1965-68”, pages 765-766:


King walked ahead of Rev. Billy Kyles to look over the handrail outside, down on a bustling scene in the parking lot. Police undercover agent Marrell McCullough parked almost directly below, returning with James Orange and James Bevel from a shopping trip to buy overalls. Orange unfolded his massive frame from McCullough’s little blue Volkswagen, tussling with Bevel, and Andrew Young stepped up to rescue Bevel by shadow-boxing at a distance. King called down benignly from the floor above to be careful with preachers half his size. McCullough and Orange walked back to talk with two female college students who pulled in just behind them. Jesse Jackson emerged from the rehearsal room, which reminded King to extend his rapprochement. “Jesse, I want you to come to dinner with me,” he said.

Kyles, overhearing on his way down the balcony stairs, told King not to worry because Jackson already secured his invitation. Jackson does not try to bring his whole Breadbasket band, while Chauncey Eskridge was telling Jackson he should upgrade from turtleneck to necktie for dinner.  Jackson called up to King: “Doc, you remember Ben Branch?”. He said Breadbasket’s lead saxophonist and song leader was native to Memphis.

“Oh yes, he’s my man,” said King. “How are you, Ben?” Branch waved.  King recalled his signature number from Chicago. “Ben, make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand,’ in the meeting tonight,” he called down. “Play it real pretty.”

“Okay, Doc, I will.”

Solomon Jones, the volunteer chauffeur, called up to bring coats for a chilly night. There was no reply. Time on the balcony had turned lethal, which left hanging the last words fixed in a gospel song of refuge. King stood still for once, and his sojourn in earth went black.


If you are interested in having a copy of his speech, it is free from iTunes (just search for “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop).  Please take time today to reflect on the life of Dr. King and how each of us can continue to work towards harmony with one another.  “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” is a powerful speech where King’s cadence and inspiration stir the soul in hopefulness.  


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