April 4, 1968: The end of the dream

Americans didn’t have much innocence left to lose in the spring of 1968, four years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, halfway through a bloody, pointless war in Vietnam, and following devastating riots in Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., Detroit and other cities. But history still had some disillusionment in store. On the afternoon of April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — preacher, hero of the civil rights movement, Nobel Peace Prize winner — was talking with colleagues on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., when a shot rang out from a nearby window, and a bullet from a .30-06 hit him in the jaw, blowing away the knot from his necktie and killing him on the spot.

King’s death — “one of the darkest hours of mankind,” in the words of his close friend Rev. Ralph Abernathy — closed a chapter of progress on civil rights that had begun a decade earlier with lunch-counter sit-ins and bus boycotts, and culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Within hours of the news of his assassination, riots broke out in many American cities, and continued off and on until his funeral five days later. A new, angrier generation of black leaders emerged, under the rubric of “Black Power.”

The shooter, a 40-year-old ex-con named James Earl Ray, fled to Canada and then to England, where he was arrested two months later and returned to the U.S. In March 1969, he pled guilty to murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison, where he died in 1998.

Here’s a look back at that tragic day and its aftermath.
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<p>Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walks across the balcony of the Lorraine Motel shortly after arriving in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, at approximately the spot where he was shot by a hidden assassin on April 4, 1968. (Photo: Charles Kelly/AP) </p>
April 3, 1968: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Lorraine Motel balcony

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walks across the balcony of the Lorraine Motel shortly after arriving in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, at approximately the spot where he was shot by a hidden assassin on April 4, 1968. (Photo: Charles Kelly/AP)

<p>Caught in a somber mood, Dr. Martin Luther King addresses some 2,000 people at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images </p>
April 3, 1968: Dr. King speaks at the Mason Temple

Caught in a somber mood, Dr. Martin Luther King addresses some 2,000 people at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

<p>A view of the partially covered body of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. (Photo: Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images) </p>
April 4, 1968: The slain Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A view of the partially covered body of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. (Photo: Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

<p>Dr. Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson (both obscured) and others stand on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and point in the direction of gun shots that killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who lies at their feet, Memphis, Tenn., April 4, 1968. (Photo: Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images) </p>
April 4, 1968: Witnesses point in the direction of gun shots

Dr. Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson (both obscured) and others stand on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and point in the direction of gun shots that killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who lies at their feet, Memphis, Tenn., April 4, 1968. (Photo: Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

<p>An unidentified police officer stands at the scene after the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tenn., April 4, 1968. (Photo: Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images) </p>
April 4, 1968: Police officer at the scene

An unidentified police officer stands at the scene after the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tenn., April 4, 1968. (Photo: Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

<p>Exterior view of the Lorraine Motel in the hours after the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis, Tenn., April 4, 1968. (Photo: Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) </p>
April 4, 1968: The Lorraine Motel

Exterior view of the Lorraine Motel in the hours after the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis, Tenn., April 4, 1968. (Photo: Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

<p>View of a nearby rooming house where suspect James Earl Ray was believed to have fired the fatal shot that killed King. (Photo: Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) </p>
April 4, 1968: Rooming house where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot

View of a nearby rooming house where suspect James Earl Ray was believed to have fired the fatal shot that killed King. (Photo: Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

<p>Coretta Scott King, center, widow of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is comforted in the doorway of an airliner in Memphis, Tenn., April 5, 1968, as her husband’s body is brought up the ramp. (Photo: AP) </p>
April 5, 1968: Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King, center, widow of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is comforted in the doorway of an airliner in Memphis, Tenn., April 5, 1968, as her husband’s body is brought up the ramp. (Photo: AP)

<p>The casket bearing the body of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is taken up a loading ramp and placed aboard an airliner in Memphis, Tenn. for a trip to Atlanta, April 5, 1968. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, named to replace Dr. King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, stands in the doorway of the plane. (Photo: AP) </p>
April 5, 1968: The casket bearing the body of Dr. King

The casket bearing the body of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is taken up a loading ramp and placed aboard an airliner in Memphis, Tenn. for a trip to Atlanta, April 5, 1968. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, named to replace Dr. King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, stands in the doorway of the plane. (Photo: AP)

<p>A reporter stands in the room rented by the assassin James Earl Ray Jr. (Photo: AP) </p>
April 5, 1968: The room rented by the assassin

A reporter stands in the room rented by the assassin James Earl Ray Jr. (Photo: AP)

<p>Jesse Jackson, in Chicago, holds a copy of the Daily Defender, April 5, 1968. (Photo: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images) </p>
April 5, 1968: Rev. Jesse Jackson

Jesse Jackson, in Chicago, holds a copy of the Daily Defender, April 5, 1968. (Photo: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

<p>In a TV address to the nation, President Johnson calls for a joint session of Congress to meet next Monday to hear his recommendations on how to avoid violence in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images) </p>
April 5, 1968: President Johnson addresses the nation

In a TV address to the nation, President Johnson calls for a joint session of Congress to meet next Monday to hear his recommendations on how to avoid violence in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

<p>Looting and arson continued in the nation’s capital after the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo: Darryl Heikes/UPI/Getty Images </p>
April 6, 1968: Violence erupts in Washington, D.C.

Looting and arson continued in the nation’s capital after the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo: Darryl Heikes/UPI/Getty Images

<p>Senator Robert F. Kennedy, accompanied by his wife, Ethel, tours northwest Washington. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images) </p>
April 7, 1968: Sen. Robert F. Kennedy tours destroyed Washington

Senator Robert F. Kennedy, accompanied by his wife, Ethel, tours northwest Washington. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

<p>Floral pieces line the rail outside the room King occupied shortly before his assassination. (Photo: AP) </p>
April 7, 1968: Outside Dr. King’s motel room

Floral pieces line the rail outside the room King occupied shortly before his assassination. (Photo: AP)

<p>Coretta Scott King and her four children view the body of her husband. (Photo: AP) </p>
April 7, 1968: Coretta Scott King and her children view Dr. King’s body

Coretta Scott King and her four children view the body of her husband. (Photo: AP)

<p>An interracial crowd of about 25,000 march through the predominantly black central ward in Newark, N.J. (Photo: John Duricka/AP) </p>
April 7, 1968: March in Newark, N.J.

An interracial crowd of about 25,000 march through the predominantly black central ward in Newark, N.J. (Photo: John Duricka/AP)

<p>Six men hang a sign in honor of King on an expressway bridge near the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Atlanta. (Photo: Toby Massey/AP) </p>
April 8, 1968: Remembering Dr. King

Six men hang a sign in honor of King on an expressway bridge near the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Atlanta. (Photo: Toby Massey/AP)

<p>Charles Arnold touches up the lettering on the crypt of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo; Charles Kelly/AP) </p>
April 8, 1968: Dr. King’s crypt in Atlanta

Charles Arnold touches up the lettering on the crypt of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo; Charles Kelly/AP)

<p>Coretta Scott King (center left, in black) and Rev. Ralph Abernathy (center right), lead a massive march in Memphis. (Photo: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images) </p>
April 8, 1968: March on Memphis

Coretta Scott King (center left, in black) and Rev. Ralph Abernathy (center right), lead a massive march in Memphis. (Photo: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

<p>The exterior of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where crowds came to pay respects to a fallen leader. (Photo: Charles Tasnadi/AP) </p>
April 8, 1968: Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta

The exterior of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where crowds came to pay respects to a fallen leader. (Photo: Charles Tasnadi/AP)

<p>Coretta Scott King arrives at Ebenezer Baptist Church for the funeral of her husband. To her right is the Rev. A. D. King, Dr. King’s brother. (Photo: AP) </p>
April 9, 1968: Coretta Scott King arrives at Ebenezer Baptist Church

Coretta Scott King arrives at Ebenezer Baptist Church for the funeral of her husband. To her right is the Rev. A. D. King, Dr. King’s brother. (Photo: AP)

<p>Outside Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo: Jack Thornell/AP) </p>
April 9, 1968: Crowds in front of Ebenezer Baptist Church

Outside Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo: Jack Thornell/AP)

<p>Coretta Scott King during funeral services for her husband at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo: AP) </p>
April 9, 1968: A tearful Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King during funeral services for her husband at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo: AP)

<p>A funeral procession of 1,300 people walks from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College. (Photo: Lynn Pelham/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) </p>
April 9, 1968: Funeral procession from Ebenezer Baptist Church

A funeral procession of 1,300 people walks from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College. (Photo: Lynn Pelham/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

<p>Coretta Scott King walks in the funeral procession with her children and family. From left are daughter Yolanda, 12; King’s brother A.D. King; Bernice, 5; King; Rev. Ralph Abernathy; Dexter, 7; and Martin Luther King III, 10. (Photo: AP) </p>
April 9, 1968: Coretta Scott King and family walk in the funeral procession

Coretta Scott King walks in the funeral procession with her children and family. From left are daughter Yolanda, 12; King’s brother A.D. King; Bernice, 5; King; Rev. Ralph Abernathy; Dexter, 7; and Martin Luther King III, 10. (Photo: AP)

<p>A brace of plow mules draws the farm wagon bearing the mahogany casket of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rev. Jesse Jackson, in green, and Andrew Young, at the left corner of the casket, are among the mourners. (Photo: AP) </p>
April 9, 1968: Plow mules draw Dr. King’s casket

A brace of plow mules draws the farm wagon bearing the mahogany casket of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rev. Jesse Jackson, in green, and Andrew Young, at the left corner of the casket, are among the mourners. (Photo: AP)

<p>Thousands of people line the streets of Atlanta for the funeral. (Photo: Keystone/Getty Images) </p>
April 4, 1968: People line the streets for the funeral

Thousands of people line the streets of Atlanta for the funeral. (Photo: Keystone/Getty Images)

<p>Dr. Ralph Abernathy speaks to mourners at Morehouse College. (Photo: AP) </p>
April 9, 1968: A second funeral service at Morehouse College

Dr. Ralph Abernathy speaks to mourners at Morehouse College. (Photo: AP)

<p>Mourners at the South View Cemetery in Atlanta. (Photo: Henry Griffin/AP) </p>
April 9, 1968: Burial services for Dr. King

Mourners at the South View Cemetery in Atlanta. (Photo: Henry Griffin/AP)

<p>Between 3,500 and 4,000 people, black and white, gathered in a downtown Minneapolis park for a service that coincided with the funeral in Atlanta. (Photo: Robert Walsh/AP) </p>
April 9, 1968: A solemn tribute in Minneapolis, Minn.

Between 3,500 and 4,000 people, black and white, gathered in a downtown Minneapolis park for a service that coincided with the funeral in Atlanta. (Photo: Robert Walsh/AP)

<p>Flowers cover the grave of assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta. (Photo: Vernon Merritt III/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images) </p>
1968: At the gravesite

Flowers cover the grave of assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta. (Photo: Vernon Merritt III/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

<p>Photo: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images </p>
April 9, 1968: Honoring Dr. King

Photo: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

<p>Two women view what is left of a Chicago business district after it was destroyed by rioting following the assassination of King, Jr. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images) </p>
April 10, 1968: Chicago’s decimated West Side

Two women view what is left of a Chicago business district after it was destroyed by rioting following the assassination of King, Jr. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

<p>Demonstrators at the White House keep King’s message alive. (Photo: Marion Trikosko/PhotoQuest/Getty Images) </p>
April 1968: Demonstrators at the White House

Demonstrators at the White House keep King’s message alive. (Photo: Marion Trikosko/PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

<p>Photo: AP </p>
April 20, 1968: James Earl Ray ‘wanted’ poster

Photo: AP

<p>James Earl Ray is led to his cell by Shelby County Sheriff William Morris. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images) </p>
July 19, 1968: James Earl Ray under arrest

James Earl Ray is led to his cell by Shelby County Sheriff William Morris. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

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