When Did Martin Luther King Jr. Die? An Overview of His Death

By , Staff Writer
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1966
    Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1966
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Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly to assure that people could enjoy the freedom of equality. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death is more than just a date on the calendar. It represents a point in American history when millions recognized that things had to change, capping over a decade of work and struggle by King. Discover when did Martin Luther King die, along with key facts about his life and assassination.

In What Year Did Martin Luther King Jr. Die?

The life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not without difficulty; he was a unifying figure for some and a polarizing figure for others. Before his untimely death, the prominent civil rights leader was arrested and assaulted many times. His home was even bombed. His life was threatened numerous times before he was ultimately assassinated in 1968.

Key Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. He was struck in the neck by a single bullet while standing on the second-floor balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The bullet struck him at 6:05 p.m., and he died an hour later.

  • Dr. King was shot in the neck by a single bullet fired by a sniper.
  • King was rushed to Saint Joseph Hospital, but he could not be saved and passed away shortly after his arrival.
  • Dr. King was 39 years old at the time of his death.

Events Immediately Preceding Dr. King's Death

Dr. King traveled to Memphis the day before he was killed in order to lend his support to the city's sanitation workers, who were on strike.

  • Dr. King arrived in Memphis the day before he was assassinated, flying in from Atlanta on the morning of April 3.
  • A bomb threat was made against King's flight, which led to the flight being evacuated and searched by law enforcement with canines prior to takeoff.
  • He delivered what proved to be a prophetic speech the evening of April 3 at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis.
  • His April 3 speech has come to be known as his I've Been To The Mountaintop speech, in which he expresses his doubts about living to see the impact of his work.
  • People close to King have since expressed their belief that at that time, King expected to soon die a violent death and that he did not fear death.
  • After the speech, King was exhausted, likely due at least in part to the stress of the bomb threat earlier in the day.
  • When he was shot on April 4, King was preparing to go out to dinner with other civil rights leaders.

Who Killed Martin Luther King Jr.?

James Earl Ray was convicted of killing Martin Luther King, Jr., though questions remain about his death.

James Earl Ray

James Earl Ray was convicted of killing Dr. King. At the time Dr. King was shot, Ray was a convicted felon who had escaped from prison a year earlier. It is said that Ray dropped the Remington 760 Gamemaster rifle and a small personal radio which had his prison ID engraved upon it, making it possible for authorities to identify Ray as the assassin.

  • In 1969, Ray confessed to being the sniper who killed Dr. King. He was subsequently convicted to serve a 99-year prison sentence.
  • Ray recanted his confession and spent the remainder of his years in prison trying unsuccessfully to withdraw his original plea and receive a new trial.
  • He died in prison on April 23, 1998.
  • During his time in prison, Ray attempted to blame the crime on a different man. He claimed that a man he met in Montreal was deeply involved in the crime.
  • Ray also tried to link his brother to the assassination.

Was There a Larger Conspiracy?

Not everyone is convinced that Ray was behind the crime or acted alone. Some people believe that the death of Dr. King was a very well conducted government conspiracy, with James Earl Ray being the scapegoat who took the fall. Those that believe in the conspiracy theory claim that James Earl Ray, an escaped convict, did not have the resources to stalk and kill a very well-protected prominent civil rights leader without assistance from a more established outside source.

Dexter King, one of Dr. King’s sons, believed that there was government involvement in the death of Dr. King. He visited James Earl Ray while he was in prison to support the fact that he didn’t believe that Ray killed his father. Towards the end of Ray's life, members of the King family actually sought to have Ray retried, though that never came to pass.

Later Claims by Lloyd Jowers

In 1993, Lloyd Jowers, who owned an eatery in the same building where James Early Ray had rented a room on the day of the shooting, went on a TV news program and claimed that he was involved in a plot to assassinate Dr. King. This is in opposition to statements he made to police following the shooting, in which he did not claim to have any information about the shooting.

  • In 1993, Jowers claimed that a Memphis businessman offered him a large sum of money to hire someone to assassinate Dr. King.
  • Jowers insisted that Lt. Earl Clark of the Memphis Police Department fired the shots that would kill Dr. King.
  • Jowers also stated that there was a very intricate plan involving local, state and federal officials and the Mafia to kill Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • He indicated that James Earl Ray did not actually pull the trigger and was simply used as a scapegoat to orchestrate the whole assassination.

The United States Department of Justice investigated Jowers' claims. They concluded that the overall evidence indicates that his allegations were unfounded.

Dr. King's Legacy Lives On

Though his days on Earth were done on that spring day, his work continued and lives on even now. Around the nation and around the world, people mourned his loss. Even though his life is over, the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to change the world. One man’s dream became the shared dream of a people seeking unity, building that unity one day and one person at a time. Discover more key facts about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his many accomplishments. The loss of his life was an appalling moment in American history, but the truth of his ideals of equal treatment and nonviolent protest continue to shape life in the United States and abroad. Explore other events that took place in 1968 to better understand this historic year.