Most Americans know about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life’s work. But many may have missed or forgotten the full story of his untimely death on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn. To mark the 45th anniversary of the American icon’s assassination, we bring you 12 details about his death and its aftermath culled from sources including Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.
1. The Garbage Collectors Killed
Members of Memphis Local 1733 marching during the strike (Richard Copley/AFSCME Communications Dept.)
King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., where, as it is often noted, he was preparing for a march in support of striking sanitation workers. It was the deaths of garbage collectors Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed by a malfunctioning truck, that precipitated that strike. In addition to recognition of their union, the workers were demanding improved safety standards to avoid similar tragedies.
2. The Dinner Companion-Turned-Witness
Samuel “Billy” Kyles in 2008 (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
The evening of April 4, King planned to have dinner with Memphis minister Samuel “Billy” Kyles and Ralph Abernathy. The two were at the Lorraine Motel when King was shot and killed and, according to Kyles’ account, were by the slain leader’s side until he passed away. When Abernathy died in 1990, Kyles took on the distinction of being “the last remaining person to have spent the final hour of Dr. King’s life with him.” The minister ultimately became executive director of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
3. The Academy Awards Ceremony Postponed
Excerpt of presidential proclamation (National Archives)
President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a national day of mourning on April 7, three days after King’s death. Public libraries, museums, businesses and schools shut their doors. Even the 40th annual Academy Awards ceremony had to be rescheduled. It was finally held on April 10.
4. The Morehouse Speaker
Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral procession (AFP/Getty Images)
Before more than 100,000 mourners followed two mules pulling King’s coffin through the streets of Atlanta, Benjamin Mays, president of King’s alma mater, Morehouse College, delivered the eulogy at his funeral on April 9. King “would probably say that ‘If death had to come, I am sure there was no greater cause to die for than fighting to get a just wage for garbage collectors,’ ” he said. It was only after another ceremony on the Morehouse campus that the slain leader’s body was initially interred at South-View Cemetery.