Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was famously assassinated on April 4, 1968, long before the founding of the Archive of American Television. Though we did not interview Dr. King, many of our interviewees spoke of him. Some met him in person, some interviewed or covered his actions for the news, and some were suprised to find he was a fan of their work. Some were personal friends, and others never met him, but were inspired by his tireless work for Civil Rights.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, was assassinated on 4 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee while lending support to a sanitation workers' strike. He was shot by James Earl Ray at approximately 7:05 P.M. Ray's bullet struck King as he was standing on his balcony at the Lorraine Motel; King died approximately one hour later. Although no television cameras were in the vicinity at the time of the assassination, television coverage of the event quickly followed.
News reports of King's wounding appeared first, but reporters remained consistent with the traditional news format, making early reports of the shooting seem both impersonal and inaccurate. The assassination took place at the same time as the evening news, and several anchormen received the information during their live broadcasts and because details of the shooting were not yet clear, inaccurate information was offered in several cases. Julian Barber of WTTG in Washington, D.C., for example, mistakenly reported that King had been shot while in his car. Following this presentation of incorrect details, Barber then proceeded to introduce the station's weatherman. The rest of the newscast followed a standard format with only minor interruptions providing information about King's condition.
Similarly, Kondrashov recalls that Walter Cronkite had almost finished delivering his report on The CBS Evening News when he received word of King's wounding. Visibly shaken, he announced the shooting. Moments after the announcement, however, the news program faded into commercial advertising. With little information available, the networks continued with their regularly scheduled programming and only later interrupted the programs with their station logos. At that point an anonymous voice announced that King was dead.
Having received word of King's death, all three networks interrupted programming with news programs. Awaiting President Lyndon Johnson's statement, all three featured anchormen discussing King's life and his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. The networks then broadcast President Johnson's statement in which he called for Americans to "reject the blind violence" which had killed the "apostle of nonviolence." In addition, the networks also covered Hubert Humphries' response, and presented footage of King's prophetic speech from 3 April in which he acknowledged the precarious stage of his life. Although the networks had reporters positioned in Memphis, there were no television reporters on the scene because an official curfew had been imposed on the city in an attempt to prevent violence.
According to McKnight, the immediacy of the television coverage prompted riots in over 60 American cities including Chicago, Denver, and Baltimore. Television coverage of King's death and the riots which it sparked continued for the next five days. King's life was featured on morning shows (e.g., NBC's The Today Show), evening news programs, and special programs. The riots themselves commanded extensive television coverage (e.g., CBS' News Nite special on the Riots). Carter suggests that the riots following King's assassination represent a significant shift from previous riotous activities, from responses dealing primarily with local issues to the national focus emerging in the wake of the King riots. National television coverage of the circumstances surrounding the King assassination may have contributed to this shift.
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a significant moment in the history of the Civil Rights Movement as well as in the history of the United States. In death, as in life, Dr. King influenced millions of Americans. From the first reports of his shooting to the coverage of his funeral services on 9 April at the Ebenezer Church on the Morehouse College Campus, television closely followed his struggle. Even after his death, news coverage of King's legacy continued when, on 11 April President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill.
Carter, G.L. "In the Narrows of the 1960's U.S. Black Rioting." Journal of Conflict Resolution (Ann Arbor, Michigan), 1986.
Kondrashov, S. and translated by Keith Hammond. The Life and Death of Martin Luther King. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1981.
Lewis, D.L. King: A Biography. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1970; 2nd edition 1978.
McKnight, G.D. "The 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike and the FBI: A Case Study in Urban Surveillance." South Atlantic Quarterly (Durham, North Carolina), 1984.