Martin Luther King: A drum major for justice

On the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's death, John A Kirk argues that the civil rights campaign was not won by 'top down' federal action but by a coordinated campaign of agitation driven by the black grass roots

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King

This article was first published in the April 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine

In the early evening of 4 April 1968, Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, getting ready to attend supper at the home of a local minister. As usual, he was running late. King’s aides were waiting for him in the courtyard below. When he finally emerged onto the second floor balcony, they shouted up to him to put on an overcoat since it was getting cold. As he turned back to his room, a shot rang out, and King fell to the floor with blood gushing from his cheek. The aides rushed to King’s side to see his life slipping away before them. “Oh, my God, my God, it’s all over,” one cried. King was rushed to a nearby hospital, but was pronounced dead shortly after arrival. He was just 39 years old.

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