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40 Years After MLK’s Assassination, A Look Back

April 4, 2008 at 6:15 PM EST

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: remembering April 4, 1968. Judy Woodruff reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was a day of tributes for Dr. King, 40 years to the day he was assassinated. A soft shower washed over the Atlanta grave site and memorial where King lies alongside his wife, Coretta. There, the remaining King children and family gathered. A commemorative service was held nearby, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached.

JEREMY POND, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: We have to continue to lift up the baton, as the baton that came down the aisle this morning, and carry this struggle for another 40 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Four hundred miles to the northwest, in Memphis, hundreds marched in a hard and pelting rain to the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot and killed.

It is now a civil rights museum. A wreath hangs from the balcony where he lay mortally wounded outside room 306. King was in Memphis helping to organize a strike by Memphis sanitation workers. In his last speech, now known as his “I have been to the mountaintop” speech, King’s words now seem ominously prophetic.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., civil rights leader: 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. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.

And I have looked over. And I have 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.

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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twenty-four hours later, while standing on the hotel’s balcony, King was cut down by a single rifle shot. He was just 39 years old.

The assassin was 40-year-old James Earl Ray, who later confessed to murdering King. King had traveled to Memphis with fellow civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles. They spoke yesterday about their memories of that day.

REVEREND SAMUEL “BILLY” KYLES, eyewitness to King’s Murder: We came out of the room and he stood here and I stood here. And he was talking to Jesse. I said, guys, come on. Let’s go. We have a rally after dinner. And I turned and walked away and got a few steps, a few feet, and that is when I heard the shot. But, at the very moment of the impact, he was talking to Jesse.