Dr. King’s Last Moments

Memphis magazine provides a moving tick-tock

Much of today’s coverage of the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination examines the reverend’s legacy through the telescopic lens of American culture: from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis has grown a forty-year-old dialogue about race and equality whose rhetoric is often as lofty as that of the man who inspired it. And rightly so: lyrical language makes a fitting tribute to a leader who so masterfully used words in the service of action.

Still, sometimes the simplest tributes are just as affecting. And one of the best I’ve seen in this regard (via TNR’s Jason Zengerle) is a Memphis magazine piece narrating the final moments of Dr. King’s life: a classic tick-tock, sparse in language but rich in detail, marrying the banal (“King and Abernathy dress for dinner. Because King’s skin is so sensitive, he ‘shaves’ by using a homemade depilatory”) and the sublime (“I have been to the mountaintop”)…and made even more wrenching by the piece’s suggestion—declared at its outset, and implied throughout—that King knew he was soon to be slain.

The piece is worth a read in its entirety; here, however, are two excerpts.

April 3, 1968:

7:30 p.m. — Tornado sirens begin moaning across the city.

9:00 p.m. — King arrives at Mason Temple and receives a standing ovation. Abernathy gives him a 25-minute introduction, complete with jokes and stories. Another minister chastises him: “We thought you weren’t going to make a speech. Didn’t you know that they came to hear Martin?”

9:30 p.m. — King begins his famous “Mountaintop” speech, beginning by noting, “Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world.” He also tells about the time a woman walked up to him in a department store and stabbed him in the chest, narrowly missing his heart. Lawson, listening off to one side, thought the murder attempt was an odd subject to discuss: “I said to myself, ‘I’ve never heard him do that in public in quite that way.’”

10:00 p.m. — Tornados and thunderstorms sweep across Shelby County. Wind gusts repeatedly slam into the shutters of Mason Temple with a BANG as lightning flashes outside.

10:15 p.m. — King continues: “And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. 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. But then it really doesn’t matter to me now.” He pauses. “Because I have been to the mountaintop.”

10:20 p.m. — Ivan Webb, night desk clerk at the Rebel Motel, notices the lights remain on all night in Room 34 [the room James Earl Ray had rented]. Honey writes, “Ray watched television news as it casually pictured King entering Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. Ray knew right where to find him.”

10:30 p.m. — King concludes his speech with, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” and takes a seat, his eyes wet with tears. Honey writes, “Pandemonium swept Mason Temple as people came to their feet — applauding, cheering, yelling, crying.” Another minister observes, “When he sat down, he was just crying. He sure was.” Preachers sometimes cried, but he had never seen King do it. “This time it seemed like he was just saying, ‘Goodbye, I hate to leave.’”

April 4, 1968:

5:55 p.m. — Waiting for Abernathy, King steps out onto the balcony outside Room 306. Down in the parking lot, Jackson says to King, “Doc, this is Ben Branch. Ben used to live in Memphis. He plays in our band.” King leans over the railing to tell Branch he remembers him, but jokes that he can’t bring his whole band to the Kyles’ house, and comes back inside. Abernathy returns to his own room, next to King’s, to put on aftershave.

5:55 p.m. — At the fire station, a fireman, George Loenneke, asks policeman Richmond if he can look through the binoculars for a few minutes. He watches as King steps back onto the balcony outside Room 306 and talks to the people below.

6:00 p.m. - King leans over the railing and tells Branch to “play ‘Precious Lord’ like you’ve never played it before.” Branch says, “Dr. King, you know I do that all the time.” King responds, “But tonight, especially for me. I want you to play it real pretty.” Branch says, “I will, Doc,” and tells him to put on an overcoat, since it might be chilly later.

6:00 p.m. — From 207 feet away, Ray steps into the bathtub of the boarding house bathroom, pokes the rifle barrel out of the window, and sights quickly through the scope.

6:01 p.m. — King straightens up and begins to turn back towards his room to get a coat. He had been in Memphis 31 hours and 28 minutes.

6:01 p.m. — Ray pulls the trigger.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.