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.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And those around King, including his wife, Coretta, knew immediately the world had changed.
REVEREND JESSE JACKSON, Founder, Rainbow/Push Coalition: In minutes, of course, you knew what had happened, and then everything changed, because life for us has been before and after Martin Luther King.
He was just trying to bring peace. They just blew him away. And life changed for us. And our government was a part of this thing. They set the climate for his -- he was 39 years old. And they didn't have to kill him. It is not right. Didn't have to kill him. I don't come back much. It is a lot to take. It is still a lot to take.
JUDY WOODRUFF: That sadness, anger and frustration was even more raw in the immediate hours and days after King's assassination. Riots broke out in more than 60 cities across the country. Some of the worst were in Washington, D.C., which still bears the scars in some neighborhoods.
Five days after King's murder, a crowd of 300,000 attended his funeral. President Lyndon Johnson declared the day one of national mourning.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Martin Luther King spent his life fighting to end racial inequality in America. In the last years of his life, the message broadened to encompass issues of social justice and economic equality.
It is a message that all three presidential candidates wanted to be associated with today. John McCain spoke in Memphis in front of the Lorraine Motel, and said King's philosophy has lived on in the years since his death.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-Ariz.), presidential candidate: When Dr. King and his comrades began to break that chain with their campaign of peaceful protests, there were those who said, wait. Just give it a little more time. Be patient. Be patient, and, one day, America will come around.
But patience had been tried over many generations, and, still, millions lived in what he called the smothering, airtight cage of injustice. For his marches in Birmingham, Montgomery, and elsewhere, for his sit-ins and his sermons, he was called an agitator, a troublemaker, a malcontent, and a disturber of the peace. These are often the terms applied to men and women of conscience who will not endure cruelty, nor abide injustice.
JUDY WOODRUFF: McCain also apologized for his 1983 vote against establishing a federal holiday in King's honor.
JOHN MCCAIN: We can be slow as well to give greatness its due, a mistake I myself made long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King. I was wrong.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you!
JOHN MCCAIN: I was wrong.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Hillary Clinton also spoke in Memphis. She reflected on her feelings in the wake of King's assassination, and, two months later, that of Bobby Kennedy.
SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), presidential candidate: It felt like the doors had closed on the hope that so many had felt. But that would have been such a disservice to Dr. King, to have taken the despair the outrage, and just ended with that.
Dr. King taught us everything we needed to know about his legacy and how to carry it forward. But, in the end, it is up to each of us to walk that path. It is not an easy path. It was hard for him. It is hard for us.
Sometimes, we take steps backwards, so maybe then we can figure out a new way forward. But I have abiding confidence, and, yes, faith, that we can make our way to higher ground.
JUDY WOODRUFF: This morning, Barack Obama addressed King's legacy in Indiana, the state where Bobby Kennedy spoke on the night King was assassinated. He reminded the Fort Wayne audience of a central piece of King's message, one that Obama said must continue to be practiced for progress to occur.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-Ill.), presidential candidate: But one of the forgotten aspects of Dr. King's legacy is how he demanded personal responsibility, as well as societal responsibility.
One of the powerful things about the nonviolent movement was the training and the discipline that was instilled in people in explaining, look, you can't be part of the movement unless you have cleansed yourselves, unless you have gotten rid of and controlled your violent impulses, unless you're willing to turn the other cheek, unless you are willing to show that you have got the moral high ground.
Well, what is true then is also true now. So, if we're complaining about the quality of our schools or what is happening to our young people, but we're not doing our job at home, then those are empty complaints.