40 Years Later, MLK Murder Still Haunting

Martin Luther King Jr., second right, and SCLC aides Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson Jr., from left, and Ralph Abernathy return to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to strategize for the second Sanitation Worker's march led by King in this April 3, 1968 file photo. King was shot dead on the balcony April 4, 1968.
AP Photo/File
It was 40 years ago that Martin Luther King Jr. collapsed on a motel balcony, dying from a gunshot. But for those who were there with him, the crack of the rifle has barely faded.

"Sometimes there are playbacks in my head," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former King aide. "I see him talking and laughing and going to dinner.

"All of a sudden," he said with a clap of his hands, "it was over."

Jackson joined the Rev. Billy Kyles, a Memphis pastor, at the site of the assassination recently to talk to The Associated Press about April 4, 1968, the day King died.

Kyles was a few feet from King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when the bullet struck. Jackson was below, joking with King about going to dinner at Kyles' house.

Then King fell, and panic ensued.

"Blood was everywhere," Kyles said. "The nightmare was that I was awake. This really was happening."

CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports that thousands were due in Memphis to commemorate King's achievements on Friday and to re-dedicate themselves to his life's work.

King was in Memphis helping lead a strike by city sanitation workers. The civil rights leader had shifted his focus to helping the working poor of all races and opposing the Vietnam War, which was stirring up a whole new wave of enemies, Jackson said.

"He is a beloved man today, but a hated man when he was killed," Jackson said.

King had hoped to lead a peaceful protest march with the garbage workers as a sort of dress rehearsal for the Poor People's Campaign he was preparing to take to Washington.

But a march through downtown Memphis on March 28 fell apart when small groups of unruly protesters and looters began breaking store windows. Police rushed in with nightsticks and tear gas leaving many of the marchers - the peaceful and unruly alike - bruised and bloodied.

King, whose career was built on nonviolent opposition to the powerful, was accused of hypocrisy and of having lost control of his followers. Doubts were raised over his ability to lead the Poor People's Campaign.

King was warned he could be in physical danger if he returned to Memphis, Jackson said, but he came back anyway vowing to lead a second march, this one peaceful.

He did, and Coley Jackson, one of the original Memphis sanitation workers who participated in the last march King would ever lead, told Whitaker their strike for a living wage and better treatment from supervisors who would call them "boy" was floundering, until the civil rights icon took up their cause.

"He said freedom is never given by the oppressor. It must be won by the oppressed," Jackson told Whitaker.

In his last public address, King told a packed house at Mason Temple in Memphis that he had been to the mountaintop and 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," he shouted to thunderous applause. "And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man."

The "mountaintop speech" on April 3 and King's apparent reference to the possibility of an early death showed he was under more stress than even those closest to him had realized.

"We had no way of knowing how much pain ... he was internalizing. How much more he knew than we knew about the threats," Jackson said. "But his courage rose above the threats."

The following day, King and his associates mostly stayed in their rooms at the Lorraine. The conversations were light, "just cracking jokes and having fun," Jackson said.

About 6 p.m. the group prepared to go to dinner.

"I said, guys, come on let's go. We have a rally after dinner," Kyles said. "I turned and walked away, got a few steps, a few feet, and that's when I heard the shot."

The .30-caliber bullet hit King in the jaw, severed his jugular vein and spine and knocked him to his back.

(AP Photo/Jason Bronis)
There was little anyone could do but cover him with a blanket and wait for the ambulance. Jackson went into one of the rooms and called King's wife, Coretta Scott King, telling her she had better come to Memphis.

Jackson, seen at left, said he told her King was shot in a shoulder, though it was obvious he was mortally wounded. "I just couldn't say it," he said.

James Earl Ray, a career criminal and prison escapee from Missouri, confessed to killing King and drew 99 years in prison. Numerous conspiracy theories have cropped up over the years, but none has been proven. Ray died in prison in 1998.

It's unlikely Ray could have killed King alone, Jackson said, and King's vilification by the FBI and other champions of the status quo had created a dangerous emotional climate that lead to the murder.

"He was trying to live in peace and they just blew him away," Jackson said. "They didn't have to kill him."

Jackson's voice began to break as he talked with Kyles on the Lorraine's balcony.

"I don't come back much. It's a lot to take," Jackson said, his eyes growing wet. "It's still a lot to take."

Whitaker said presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain were scheduled to join civil rights leaders and citizens, including the former sanitation workers, at events in Memphis on Friday.