The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Video

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  • 00:01 Impact of Martin…
  • 1:10 Riots
  • 2:08 Manhunt and Conspiracy
  • 2:42 Legacy of Assassination
  • 3:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

One of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., forever changed the landscape of civil rights in America. This lesson explains the circumstances of the assassination and its legacy.

Impact of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Perhaps no one else personified the American Civil Rights movement better than Martin Luther King, Jr. A prominent preacher, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and advocate for nonviolence, King made no shortage of enemies in his effort to secure equal rights for all Americans. In fact, that desire for equal rights would ultimately be what led him to Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968. The local sanitation union had requested that King come to bring attention to the fact that there were significant discrepancies between the treatment of white and black employees.

King did not have an easy time getting to Memphis. His plane was delayed due a bomb threat and in his last speech on April 3, it sounded like he knew what awaited him. Still, on April 4, he concluded the business of the day and was relaxing outside of his room at the Lorraine Motel. Suddenly, a rifle cracked and a bullet slammed into King's face before shattering his spinal cord and major blood vessels in his neck. Within an hour, the lion of the American Civil Rights movement was dead.

Riots That Night

Due to King's immense fame and influence, it did not take long at all for news to spread. King had been a symbol of nonviolence, and now that hope in a nonviolent solution was gone. Many felt anger towards the white opposition to King's work, and their anger took the form of violent protests. Across many major cities, riots spread, consuming city centers and threatening the livelihood of thousands. In a cruel twist of irony, those close to King said that he would have wanted none of this.

Yet violence did not plague every city. Politicians who were quick to display empathy for the African-American community's loss were venerated themselves and their cities spared destruction. The mayor of New York City went straight to Harlem to mourn the death of King. However, the most touching tribute came from Robert Kennedy. He reminded a large crowd in Indianapolis that his own brother, John Kennedy, had been a victim of an assassin, and that neither JFK nor MLK would condone violence.

Manhunt and Conspiracy

While populations mourned, a giant manhunt commenced that would end up taking two months and stretch across the Atlantic to find King's assassin. James Earl Ray was eventually captured at Heathrow Airport in London and charged with murder. Originally, he pled guilty, but then changed his plea, saying that he was a part of a much larger conspiracy. Ray was sentenced to 99 years and he died in prison in 1998, but his accusations of a larger conspiracy ended up gaining much of the public's attention, as well as agreements from many close to King.

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