At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, a shot rang out. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, now lay sprawled on the balcony's floor. A gaping wound covered a large portion of his jaw and neck. A great man who had spent thirteen years of his life dedicating himself to nonviolent protest had been felled by a sniper's bullet.
Violence and controversy followed. In outrage of the murder, many blacks took to the streets across the country in a massive wave of riots. The FBI investigated the crime, but many believed them partially of fully responsible for the assassination. A man was arrested, but many people, including some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s own family, believe he was innocent.
On April 3, King arrived in Memphis a little later than planned because there had been a bomb threat for his flight before takeoff. That evening, King delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech to a relatively small crowd that had braved the bad weather to hear King speak. King's thoughts were obviously on his mortality, for he discussed the plane threat as well as the time he had been stabbed.
Excerpt from the "Mountaintop" speech:
The next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that's punctured you're drowned in your own blood; that's the end of you. (Yes sir) It came out in the New York Times the next morning that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died.
Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheelchair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the president and the vice president; I've forgotten what those telegrams said. I'd received a visit and a letter from the governor of New York, but I've forgotten what that letter said. (Yes)
But there was another letter (All right) that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter and I'll never forget it. It said simply, "Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School." She said, "While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I'm a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze." (Yes) [applause]
And I want to say tonight [applause], I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn't sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, (All right) I wouldn't have been around here in 1960 (Well), when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up (Yes sir) for the best in the American dream and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy, which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
If I had sneezed (Yes), I wouldn't have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in interstate travel. (All right)
If I had sneezed (Yes), I wouldn't have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent.
If I had sneezed [applause], if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been here in 1963 (All right), when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. (Yes)
If I had sneezed [applause], I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. (Yes) I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.
And they were telling me. [applause] Now it doesn't matter now. (Go ahead) It really doesn't matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane-there were six of us-the pilot said over the public address system: "We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we've had the plane protected and guarded all night."
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out (Yeah), or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.
Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [applause] And I don't mind. [applause continues] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life-longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. (Yeah) And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I've looked over (Yes sir), and I've seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight, (Yes) that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [applause] (Go ahead. Go ahead) And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [applause]
The Lorraine Motel, (now the National Civil Rights Museum) was a relatively drab, two-story motor inn on Mulberry Street in downtown Memphis. Yet it had become a habit of Martin Luther King and his entourage to stay at the Lorraine Motel when they visited Memphis.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King and his friends were getting dressed to have dinner with Memphis minister Billy Kyles. King was in Room 306 on the second floor and hurried to get dressed since they were, as usual, running a bit late.
Near the car in the parking lot directly below the balcony, waited James Bevel, Chauncey Eskridge (SCLC lawyer), Jesse Jackson, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, and Solomon Jones, Jr. (the driver of the loaned white Cadillac). A few remarks were exchanged between the men waiting below and Kyles and King. Jones remarked that King should get a topcoat; King replied, "O.K."
Kyles was just a couple steps down the stairs and Abernathy was still inside the motel room when the shot rang out. Some of the men initially thought it a car backfire, but others realized it was a rifle shot. King had fallen to the concrete floor of the balcony with a large, gaping wound covering his right jaw.
Kyles had gone into a motel room to call an ambulance while others encircled King. Marrell McCollough, an undercover Memphis police officer, grabbed a towel and tried to stop the flow of blood. Though King was unresponsive, he was still alive - but only barely.
Within fifteen minutes of the shot, Martin Luther King arrived at St. Joseph's Hospital on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over his face. He had been hit by a .30-06 caliber rifle bullet that had entered his right jaw, then traveled through his neck, severing his spinal cord, and stopped in his shoulder blade.
The doctors tried emergency surgery but the wound was too serious. Martin Luther King, Jr. was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. He was 39 years old.
Oh, the worst of all tragedies is not to die young, but to live until I am seventy-five and yet not ever truly to have lived.
Martin Luther King Jr.
From 1929 to 1968 is only 39 short years.
Too short to gather the fruits of your labor
Too short to comfort your parents when your brother drowns
Too short to comfort your father when mother dies
Too short to see your children finish school
Too short to ever enjoy grandchildren
Too short to know retirement
Thirty-nine years is just too short.
From 1929 to 1968 is only 39 short years, yet it's
Too long to be crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination, it's
Too long to stand in the quicksand of racial injustices, it's
Too long to receive threatening phone calls, often at the rate of forty per day, it's
Too long to live under the sweltering heat of continuous pressure, it's
Too long, 39 years is just too long.
From 1929 to 1968 is only 39 short years, yet it's Long enough.
It's long enough to journey all the way to India to learn under a great teacher how to walk through angry crowds and keep cool.
It's long enough to be chased by police dogs and lashed by the rushing waters from the fireman's hoses because you are dramatizing the fact that justice has a way of eluding me and my brother.
It's long enough to spend many days in jail while protesting the plight of others.
It's long enough to have a bomb thrown into your home.
It's long enough to teach angry violent men to be still while you pray for the bombers.
It's long enough.
It's long enough to lead many men to Christianity.
It's long enough to know it's better to go to war for justice than to live in peace with injustices.
It's long enough to know that more appalling than bigotry and hatred are those who sit still and watch injustices each day in silence.
It's long enough to realize that injustices are undiscriminating and people of all races and creeds experience its cruel captivity sooner or later.
It's long enough.
It's long enough to know that when one uses civil disobedience for his civil rights, he does not break the laws of the Constitution of the United States of America - rather he seeks to uphold the principles all men are created equal; he seeks to break down local ordinances that have already broken the laws of the Constitution of the United States.
It's long enough.
It's long enough to accept invitations to speak to the nation's leaders.
It's long enough to address thousands of people on hundreds of different occasions.
It's long enough to lead 200,000 people to the nation's capital to dramatize that all of America's people are heirs to the property of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It's long enough to enter college at 15.
It's long enough to finish and earn several degrees.
It's long enough to earn hundreds of awards.
It's long enough to marry and father four children.
It's long enough to become a drum major for peace.
It's long enough to earn a Nobel Peace Prize.
It's long enough to give the $54,000 prize money to the cause of justice.
It's long enough to visit the mountain top.
It's certainly long enough to have a dream.
When we note how much Martin Luther King packed into 39 short years, we know it's long enough for any man who loves his country and his fellow man so much that life itself has no value - unless all men can sit at the table of brotherhood as brothers. Thirty-nine years is long enough - for any man to knowingly flirt with death each day of his life - because to spare himself heartaches and sorrow meant two steps backward for his brother tomorrow.
Martin lived for several centuries, all rolled into 39 short years. His memory will live forever. How wonderful it would be if we could all live as well.
Martin, like all others, would have welcomed longevity - yet when he weighed the facts, he said, "It's not how long a man lives, but how well he uses the time allotted him."
And so we salute and honor the memory of a man who lived in the confusion of injustice for all his too short, too long, long enough 39 years- "For He's Free At Last."