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This Day in History: The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, James Farmer

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and James Farmer, 18 January 1964. Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto. PD.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch discusses key moments in civil rights at the Miller Center Forum, April 1, 2013.

Today marks the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At 6:01 P.M. on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 P.M. At 9:07 P.M. that same evening, President Johnson read a short statement for radio and television broadcast from outside the entrance to the West Lobby of the White House:

America is shocked and saddened by the brutal slaying tonight of Dr. Martin Luther King. I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by nonviolence. I pray that his family can find comfort in the memory of all he tried to do for the land he loved so well. I have just conveyed the sympathy of Mrs. Johnson and myself to his widow, Mrs. King. I know that every American of good will joins me in mourning the death of this outstanding leader and in praying for peace and understanding throughout this land. We can achieve nothing by lawlessness and divisiveness among the American people. It is only by joining together and only by working together that we can continue to move toward equality and fulfillment for all of our people. I hope that all Americans tonight will search their hearts as they ponder this most tragic incident. I have canceled my plans for the evening. I am postponing my trip to Hawaii until tomorrow. Thank you.

Tapes from the Miller Center’s presidential recordings program show local, state and federal government officials struggling to establish control over the civil unrest that ensued in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination. For example, in a phone conversation on April 6, 1968, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley told Johnson, “We’re in trouble. We need help,” and asked for federal troops to help control rioting. Listen to more of the phone recordings between LBJ, Daley, and other administration officials here.  

Also check out the Miller Center’s Forum earlier this week, which featured Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the acclaimed America in the King Years trilogy Taylor Branch speaking on his latest book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement. In the book, Branch has identified 18 essential moments from the Civil Rights movement, and provided selections from his trilogy, placing each moment in historical context. As Branch noted in the forum, this year marks the beginning of the march of 50th year anniversaries related to key events in the civil rights movement. Branch asserted that the Great Leap in Birmingham was significant as it raised the race issue and focused the attention of people across the country on equal citizenship. Race, he said, was a pathway that is still paying dividends today as we discuss gay rights. Furthermore, the adoption of nonviolence as a strategy by the movement made an impact around the world, including its use by Nelson Mandela in South Africa. But Branch cautioned that we have not yet achieved a post-racial society. While it’s significant that Americans elected our first African American president, Branch argues that people voted on race on their own terms. Watch the full forum here.

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