In our next installment of 1968: Year of Discontent, the assassination of a civil rights icon and its lasting impact a half-century later.
On April 4, 1968. Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News led with a story that broke, literally, just before airtime.
“Good evening,” Cronkite began. “Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of non-violence in the Civil Rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was standing on the balcony of a second-floor hotel room tonight when, according to a companion, a shot was fired from across the street.”
The 39-year-old King had returned to Memphis to lead a protest march on behalf of striking sanitation workers. The night before, he delivered what would be his final sermon at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis.
“Somewhere I read, of the freedom of assembly,” said King. “Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech; somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America, is the right to protest for rights.”
The last part of his sermon was, as we know today, chillingly prophetic.
“But it doesn’t really matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop,” said King. “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.”
“Dr. King came pretty much out of his room as I was getting out of my car,” said Clara Ester, a retired United Methodist deaconess who lives in Mobile. In 1968 she was a college student organizer for mass marches.
About three minutes after her arrival at the Lorraine Motel, she heard what was first thought to be a truck backfiring.
“I had never taken my eyes off of [King],” said Ester. “So, I’m watching him being lifted up off the pavement and thrown back.”
To this day, Ester doesn’t remember how she made her way up to the balcony where King lay.
“I stepped over his body; I knelt down and felt his pulse, which was just [a] minimum of anything beating,” Ester recalled. “And unbuckled his belt because he was sort of gasping for air.”
Ester and others were detained by police at the motel because of curfew. She was escorted home in the wee hours of April 5, where her parents were waiting up for her.
“And my mom said, ‘Do what you need to do, but get some rest,’” said Ester. “I was driven to see that the second Poor People’s Campaign was successful. So I let college to go to Marks, Mississippi and help organize there.”
Two months after King's death, James Earl Ray was arrested in London and extradited to Memphis. He confessed to the crime and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He escaped briefly in 1977, was captured, and died in prison in 1998
Also looking back a half-century was Rev. H.K. Matthews, a Pensacola-area Civil Rights icon who celebrated his ninetieth birthday in February.
“I met Dr. King initially in Birmingham after the 16th Street [Baptist Church] bombing where those four little girls were killed,” said Matthews. “[But] I never was one of the mainstays in the campaign. I did have the privilege of working in the same settings that he worked in – that he was leading; I guess that was my claim to fame as it relates to knowing him.”
On April 4, 1968, Matthews was in Pensacola, serving as President of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization founded by King. As riots broke out across the nation, Matthews pleaded for calm in Pensacola.
“It would certainly go against everything that Dr. King had taught us,” said Matthews. “Let us demonstrate to the world that we were not pleased, we were upset about it – but do it in a way that people would understand and [that] we are not trying to promote violence.”
Matthews adds that King’s death left a “tremendous vacuum” in the movement.
“There was only one Dr. King; there will never be, I don’t think, another Dr. King,” Matthews said. There were people who stepped in, but their capabilities and their abilities were no match for those that Dr. King had.”
King’s assassination is still being felt. In many instances today’s Civil Rights movement finds itself on what Matthews calls a “path to retrogression.”
“We need to stop blaming white people for all of our backward going; a lot of it should be laid at our doorstep,” Matthews said. “Because we’ve allowed ourselves to be lulled to sleep by the enemy’s lies, instead of being shook and woke up by the friends’ truth.”
Two large parts of today’s Civil Rights landscape, says Deaconess Clara Ester, are Black Lives Matter, and the movement that originated from the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
“It’s a shame that today we still have to say that,” said Ester. “To be treated because of your color, in 2018, ought to be against the law.”
Fifty years after his death, Martin Luther King Jr. remains the most widely known African-American leader of his era, and the face of the civil rights movement. A national holiday honoring King began in 1986, and by 1990 all states were observant. Numerous towns and cities renamed streets and parks after him – including MLK Plaza and MLK Drive in Pensacola.