Posted: April 03, 2018
By Crystal Bonvillian, Cox Media Group National Content Desk
Mary Ellen Ford was a 21-year-old cook at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel in April 1968, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. checked in for the last time.
King, who was in town to help lead striking sanitation workers, was one of a bevy of prominent black Americans who stayed at the Lorraine over the years. The motel, owned by Walter and Loree Bailey, was a safe place for prominent African-Americans to stay in the segregated South.
One of the motel’s most distinguished guests was the iconic civil rights leader.
“Mr. Bailey would be running around, ‘Get this room straightened up because Dr. King is coming,’” Ford told “Today”-- speaking out publicly about her experiences for the first time in five decades.
“He just wanted to make sure everything was perfect.”
Ford, known in 1968 as Mary Ellen Norwood, told “Today” she loved her job at the motel, where she got to see celebrity guests like B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and, her favorite, Isaac Hayes.
She also had occasion to spot King as he came and went about his business in Memphis. On one occasion, she delivered a tray of hamburgers to him and the other civil rights leaders gathered with him in his hotel room, Room 306.
The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King’s good friend and Southern Christian Leadership Conference colleague, once joked that the pair stayed in that particular hotel room so much that they called it the “King-Abernathy suite.”
“When I took the tray in, I set it on the table,” Ford said. “He was laying on the bed … smoking a cigarette, ‘cause he smoked.”
Ford said she was cooking in the kitchen of the motel just after 6 p.m. April 4 when the crack of a rifle shot pierced the night.
“At first, I thought it was firecrackers, you know? People shooting off firecrackers,” Ford said in her interview. “Then we all ran outside to see what was going on, and he was laying on the balcony.”
An iconic photo taken moments after the assassination shows King lying at his associates’ feet on that balcony, dying, as several of them frantically point police officers in the direction from which the gunfire came. A small group of stunned onlookers is down below.
Ford can be seen in that group, her arms crossed in front of her.
“I’m standing there. I’m just dumbfounded, you know?” she said. “Shocked, like, ‘What just happened? This don’t happen here.’”
Ford crumpled into a ball in her chair, crying as the emotional memories got to her. She told “Today” that other than a few close family members, she never told anyone she was at the Lorraine Motel the night King died.
Her own brother did not know she was there that night until about five years ago.
“After all these years, you still get emotional,” NBC’s Craig Melvin said.
“Yes,” Ford said. “I guess because I never even talked about it. Because I do, I get so emotional.”
It was later determined that escaped convict James Earl Ray shot King with a high-powered hunting rifle from the window of a rooming house less than 300 feet away, the Washington Post reported. A bag holding the gun, a radio with Ray’s prison inmate number scratched on it and a six-pack of beer, all bearing Ray’s fingerprints, were found dumped on a sidewalk nearby.
Ford described the chaos following the shooting, with people screaming and shouting, “They shot Dr. King! Somebody shot Dr. King!”
“That’s all you could hear,” she told “Today.”
Ford, who was listed in police logs as “Witness No. 43,” and other employees were kept locked down at the motel for three days as the investigation progressed. Ford said she and her coworkers initially didn’t think King would die of his wounds.
“You didn’t. Why?” Melvin asked.
“He can’t,” she said.
Ford said she prefers not to relive the tragedy she witnessed at the Lorraine Motel, which, along with the boarding house Ray fired from, has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum. Instead, she recalls the reaction of Memphis residents when they knew King was in town and staying at the motel.
“The thing that really stands out to me the most is seeing all these people sitting on the brick wall, waiting to get a glimpse of Dr. King,” she told “Today.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a young, rising star in the burgeoning civil rights movement in September 1958, when he sat signing copies of his first book in a Harlem department store.
King, then just 29 years old, was approached by a seemingly unassuming woman, who was stylishly dressed in a suit, jewelry and cat’s eye glasses, The New York Times wrote in 2015.
“Are you Martin Luther King?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” King replied, not looking up from where he was signing a copy of “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.”
A second later, Izola Ware Curry plunged a 7-inch, ivory-handled steel letter opener into King’s chest.
Nestled in her bra was a loaded .25-caliber automatic pistol, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year. She was stopped before she could get to it.
Curry, 42, did not try to run.
“I’ve been after him for six years,” Curry said at the scene. “I’m glad I done it.”
A photo from that day shows King calmly being attended to by supporters as the handle of the letter opener protrudes from his chest. A woman wipes blood from his hands, one of which suffered a minor flesh wound when he instinctively tried to ward off the blow.
The freelance photographer who shot the photo, Vernoll Coleman, told the New York Daily News in a story originally published on Sept. 21, 1958, the day after the stabbing, that King did not seem to realize he’d been stabbed.
“Dr. King held his right hand after the stabbing,” Coleman told the Daily News.
Coleman’s photo, which can be seen here, belies the seriousness of King’s wound. The steel blade came to rest against his heart and it took doctors hours of delicate surgery to remove it without killing him.
King’s doctors told him that if he had so much as sneezed, he would have died, he later said.
He talked about the stabbing in his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the day before he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers.
“That blade had gone through and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery,” King said that night. “And once that’s punctured, you’re drowned in your own blood -- that’s the end of you.”
He told his audience that he never forgot one particular letter he received as he recuperated, from a high school ninth-grader.
“She said, ‘While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl,’” he said. “‘I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.’”
King said that he, too, was grateful he did not sneeze. If he had died, he would have missed the students protesting by sitting at whites-only lunch counters, he would have missed the Freedom Rides designed to force enforcement of the integration of city buses.
He would never have given his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 at the March on Washington, nor seen the violent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, that helped lead to the passage the following year of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
He would have missed participation in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march to demand equality in the voting booths.
“I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze,” King said in that final speech.
Listen to his entire final speech below.
The civil rights icon was gunned down the following day as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the assassination, though he later recanted and rumors of a conspiracy swirl around the killing to this day.
Curry, a Georgia native who had lived in multiple states as her mental health deteriorated over the years, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and, at the time of the stabbing, had an IQ of about 70, the Journal-Constitution reported. She was found unfit to stand trial.
The Times reported that for years before she stabbed King, she had delusions that the NAACP was a Communist front and that its members were persecuting her, keeping her from being able to find and maintain a steady job. Over time, those delusions centered more and more on King.
“She confesses that many of those whom she accuses of persecuting her, she does not know personally,” doctors wrote in a psychiatric report obtained by The Smoking Gun in 2014. The report is dated Oct. 22, 1958, just over a month after Curry stabbed King.
“She has moved about in many states of this country in order to avoid her persecutors, but without success,” the report continued. “She believes she has been under constant surveillance and all her movements are known to the NAACP and Dr. King. She has feared for her life and for the past year has been carrying a gun to protect herself against possible assault.”
The report stated that Curry also threatened to sue multiple newspapers over their account of the stabbing, “which she feels was completely justified … despite the fact that she has had no personal relationship with the victim of her assault.”
Because of her mental condition, she spent the remainder of her life in a number of psychiatric facilities.
She died March 7, 2015 in a nursing home in Queens, according to the Times. She was 98 years old.
More than fifty years ago, James Earl Ray, after driving his white Ford Mustang from Atlanta, checked into the New Rebel Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Days before the trip, Ray had purchased a rifle in addition to a scope and a box of ammunition for the gun. On April 2, 1968, he had gathered the gun and a few belongings from his rooming house in Atlanta and set out on the trip to Tennessee.
The day after he arrived in Memphis, Ray, a small-time thief, would stand in a bathtub at a flophouse across the street from the Lorraine Hotel and fire one shot at civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., striking him in the chin and killing him.
Ray confessed to the shooting after he was eventually caught, only to change his story three days later, saying a mystery man named “Raoul” was the real killer. In the years that followed, other conspiracy theories would be floated by Ray. None were ever proven.
Who was Ray and is there any question that he killed King? Here’s what you may not know about him.
Ray was born in 1928 in Alton, Illinois, a city about 15 miles north of St. Louis. When Ray was 2, the family moved to Bowling Green, Missouri. When he was 6, his family moved to Ewing, Missouri after his father passed a bad check in Alton. The family went by the name of Raynes to avoid being tracked by police for the check.
Ray had a run-in with Ewing police when he was 14 -- he stole some newspapers to sell -- and ended up leaving school when he was 15.
He joined the U.S. Army in the days following World War II and was stationed in Germany.
He did not stay long in the Army. He was court-martialed for drunkenness and given a general discharge for "ineptness and lack of adaptability."
Ray took a job at a Chicago rubber company in 1948 and stayed there for several months before heading to California. By December of 1949, he was in jail, serving a three-month sentence for burglary.
Back home, but soon serving time
The arrest in California marked the beginning of Ray’s string of incarcerations across the country. In 1952, he was sentenced to two years for armed robbery in Chicago; in 1955, he was sentenced to four years in a Leavenworth, Kansas, prison for robbing a post office. In 1960, an armed robbery netted Ray a 20-year-sentence in the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.
Officials at that prison would be the first to learn that Ray was not one to meekly accept time locked up in a jail cell. While he was a marginal thief at best, Ray did seem to have a talent for escaping incarceration -- at least for periods of time.
On April 23, 1967, Ray escaped the Missouri State Penitentiary by hiding in a truck that transported bread from the prison bakery. It was his third attempt at escape from the prison.
After the escape
Ray would be on the run after his escape from prison in Missouri. He went to St. Louis and Chicago and then to Toronto and Montreal before heading to Birmingham, Alabama. In Birmingham, he got an Alabama driver’s license and purchased a white 1966 Ford Mustang.
He left Birmingham in the Mustang and headed to Acapulco, Mexico. After a short stay, he left Acapulco and drove back north to Puerto Vallarta on Oct. 19, 1967 -- five months before he would head to Memphis.
Once in Mexico, Ray decided on another line of work. He went by the name Eric Stravo Galt and took up a career as a pornographic film editor. When he realizes he has no skill in film work, he leaves Mexico around Nov. 16, 1967.
Ray went to Los Angeles that fall and worked odd jobs through the winter. He volunteered to work on the presidential campaign of Alabama Gov. George Wallace. On March 5, 1968, he had surgery on his nose. Two weeks later he would leave L.A., headed for Atlanta.
Ray arrived in Atlanta on March 18, checked into a rooming house on 14th Street near Peachtree, and purchased a map of the city. After King was killed, the FBI would find the map on which Ray had circled the locations of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the civil rights leader's home on Sunset Avenue in Vine City.
Ray was in Atlanta only two days before he left for a trip to Birmingham. There, giving the name of Harvey Lowmeyer, Ray would purchase a Remington .30-06-caliber rifle -- the Model 760 “Gamemaster” -- a Redfield 2x-7x rifle scope and a box of ammunition from the Aeromarine Supply company.
Someone who worked at the store would remember Ray saying he was going hunting with his brother.
He returned to Atlanta after purchasing the rifle and it was there that he heard news reports that King would be going to Memphis to support sanitation workers in their fight for better pay and safer working conditions.
On April 2, Ray packed a bag and his newly-purchased rifle and drove to Memphis.
Ray would later tell his lawyer that as he got near Corinth, Mississippi, he pulled the white Mustang off a stretch of abandoned road and tested the .30.06.
A little after 7 p.m. on April 3, 1968, Ray, arriving at the New Rebel Motor Hotel in Whitehaven, Tennessee, used the name Eric S. Galt to check into room 34.
The next morning, Ray read in the Memphis Commercial that King was staying at the Lorraine Hotel.
Around 3 p.m., Ray left the New Rebel Motel and checked into a rooming house across a parking lot from the Lorraine Hotel. He was first shown a room facing west. He declined that room and was given instead a second-story room on the back of the building. It faces the parking lot, and beyond the parking lot, the Lorraine.
He paid Bessie Brewer $8.50 in advance for a week’s rent. He signed in using the name John Willard.
Around 4 p.m., Ray left the hotel and bought a pair of binoculars.
It is not known what Ray did in the two hours in between, but at about 5:55 p.m., using the binoculars he had just purchased, Ray spotted King on the balcony of the Lorraine. In a five-minute period, Ray got the rifle which was wrapped in a bedspread, went down the hall to the shared bathroom, goes in and locks the door.
Then, according to his confession, he stood in the bathroom’s bathtub and knocked out the screen on the window that faced the Lorraine. He lined King up in the sites of the rifle, he said.
At 6:01 p.m., as King’s driver, Solomon Jones, called out, “Dr. King, it’s getting cool. You better get a coat,” the crack of a rifle shot is heard.
The bullet hit King on the tip of the chin, fractured his jaw then exited his face. It reentered his body in his neck area. The soft-point, metal-jacketed bullet then fractured his spine in several places and came to rest in the left side of his back.
On the run
After the single shot was fired, Ray headed out of the rooming house and to the white Mustang. A package, the contents of which would later be used to help convict Ray, was left on the ground near the Canipe's Amusement Co. on South Main Street. In the package were a rifle and a pair of binoculars. Both had Ray’s fingerprints on them.
Police radio broadcasts shortly after the assassination warned officers to be on the lookout for a white Mustang with a single white occupant who had been seen fleeing the scene of the shooting. Ray headed south and east, back to Atlanta to gather some belongings from the 14th Street rooming house. In Atlanta, he abandoned the Mustang and boarded a Greyhound bus heading to Detroit. He then took a taxi north to Canada.
He arrived in Toronto on April 7 and hid in the city for more than a month. During that time, he was able to get a Canadian passport using the stolen identity of a man named Ramon George Sneyd.
He left Toronto for England on May 6. He traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, then returned to England on May 17.
Ray was arrested on June 8 at London’s Heathrow Airport as he attempted to board a flight to Brussels. An airport employee recognized the name on the Canadian passport the Ray had been traveling under and noticed that Ray had two passports on him. He detained Ray who was then arrested.
Ray was extradited to the United States where he was taken to Tennessee and charged with King’s murder.
Caught, confessed, convicted
On Ray’s 41st birthday, March 10, 1969, he confessed to killing King. He told the judge that he understood he was giving up his right to a trial and would accept a 99-year prison sentence -- an arrangement his lawyer secured before his plea. The sentence for first-degree murder in Tennessee at the time was death by electrocution.
Three days after he entered his plea, Ray sent a letter to Shelby County, Tennessee, Criminal Court Judge W. Preston Battle, saying that he was recanting his confession and requesting a trial.
He did not receive a response from Battle, so he sent a second letter dated March 26, 1969. Ray did not receive a response from Battle concerning the second letter, either.
On March 31, Battle died. A week later, Ray filed a formal motion with the court requesting a trial. That motion was denied.
After a series of appeals, and a denial from the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s decision that Ray’s rights had not been violated.
Ray was going to jail on a 99-year sentence.
Ray was sent to the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, to serve his term. Ray would attempt to escape prison on several occasions, and on June 10, 1977, Ray and six others escaped from Brushy Mountain. With the help of hundreds of law enforcement officials and two bloodhounds, Sandy and Little Red, in particular, Ray was recaptured. He had a year added to his sentence. He tried to escape one more time, in 1979, but was quickly caught by guards.
Through the years, Ray would tell a familiar tale -- that he was a patsy, set up to take the fall for the assassination of a national figure.
Despite initially confessing that he had shot King, Ray would quickly change his story saying a man who went by the name “Raoul” was the mastermind behind the murder. Ray wrote a book in 1992 that claimed the shadowy figure had provided the gun and set him up on that day in Memphis.
According to his attorney, in 1977 Ray took a polygraph test was part of an interview with Playboy magazine. The test results, according to Playboy, showed that Ray had killed King and that he had acted alone.
Ray did have supporters in his claim that the assassination was a conspiracy to silence King -- namely, King's family. King’s family members said publicly that they believe King was a victim of a government conspiracy. “The economic movement was why he was killed, frankly,” said Martin Luther King III in a 1998 interview with Newsweek. “That was frightening to the powers that be.”
King’s family also backed Ray, publicly saying they believe he was innocent of the slaying. Ray met with Dexter King, King’s second son, in March 1997. Ray told Dexter King, “I had nothing to do with shooting your father.”
Later, King asked Ray directly, "I want to ask for the record: Did you kill my father?" ''No, no, I didn't, no,” Ray said. “But like I say, sometimes these questions are difficult to answer, and you have to make a personal evaluation.''
“Well, as awkward as this may seem, I want you to know that I believe you and my family believes you, and we are going to do everything in our power to try and make sure that justice will prevail,” King said. “And while it's at the 11th hour, I've always been a spiritual person and I believe in Providence.''
The King family would call for a murder trial that would never come.
In 1998, the King family asked President Bill Clinton to reopen the case. He agreed and asked Attorney General Janet Reno to handle the investigation. Reno assigned civil rights special counsel Barry Kowalski to head up the new investigation. In 2000, Kowalski released the findings of the investigation -- Ray, alone, was guilty and there was no government conspiracy.
In 1999, the King family won a civil lawsuit that had been filed against Memphis restaurateur Loyd Jowers. Jowers claimed that he hired a Memphis policeman to kill King at the behest of members of the mafia.
The family collected $100. They said they wanted to prove they were not trying to get money, only the truth about the assassination.
Ray would live out his years in prison still claiming his innocence. In June 1981, Ray was attacked in the prison library and stabbed 22 times by three black inmates. He recovered, but required a blood transfusion. Doctors would later say he contracted hepatitis C from the transfusion.
In 1998, Ray died in prison of complications due to chronic hepatitis C infection. He had served 29 years in prison at the time of his death.
Sources: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution; The Associated Press; The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Knoxville News-Sentinel; The Commercial Appeal; The National Archives; Notable Biographies
April 4 marked the 50th anniversary of the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. King, the leader of the non-violent movement for civil rights in the 1960s, had come to Memphis the day before to help sanitation workers rally for better wages and safer working conditions.
That evening, as King stood on a balcony at the Loraine Motel, he was mortally wounded by a bullet from a rifle believed to have been fired from a rooming house across the street from the Loraine. King was hit in the jaw and knocked unconscious. He was pronounced dead at the St. Joseph’s Hospital about an hour later, having never regained consciousness.
Here is how the world learned and reacted to the news of King’s assassination:
What King said night before he was murdered:
King came to Memphis in early April 1968 to help striking sanitation workers in their protests for better wages and safer working conditions. On April 3, King addressed a gathering at the Mason Temple in Memphis. He said he did not feel well and did not want to go, but went anyway on the urging of his aides. King stood before the crowd and spoke extemporaneously for more than 40 minutes. The speech turned out to be prophetic as King told those gathered he had “been to the mountaintop,” but that he may not “get there with you.” Here is that speech:
The obituariesFrom the New York Times:
Martin Luther King Jr.: Leader of Millions in Nonviolent Drive for Racial Justice
“To many million of American Negroes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the prophet of their crusade for racial equality. He was their voice of anguish, their eloquence in humiliation, their battle cry for human dignity. He forged for them the weapons of nonviolence that withstood and blunted the ferocity of segregation.
“And to many millions of American whites, he was one of a group of Negroes who preserved the bridge of communication between races when racial warfare threatened the United States in the nineteen-sixties, as Negroes sought the full emancipation pledged to them a century before by Abraham Lincoln.
“To the world, Dr. King had the stature that accrued to a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, a man with access to the White House and the Vatican; a veritable hero in the African states that were just emerging from colonialism.” (Click here to continue reading)
Riots follow killing of Martin Luther King Jr.
“Before darkness fell on this day, a Friday, the plumes of smoke from the West Side already were visible to Loop office workers. In Chicago and across the nation, rioting was breaking out in response to the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down in Memphis the day before.” (Click here to continue reading)
Robert Kennedy breaking the news
On April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was in Indianapolis, campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president when he was told of the assassination of King. His staff tried to dissuade Kennedy from going to speak to the crowd in a predominately black neighborhood in the city, as news of riots were beginning to spread.
Kennedy insisted on going to the corner of 17th Avenue and Broadway and talking with the people gathered there. Kennedy began by breaking the news that King had been shot and killed, then called for calm and reminded those gathered that he, too, had had a family member killed and that his family member (his brother, John F. Kennedy) was killed by a white man.
Here is Kennedy’s speech that night.
President Lyndon Johnson’s response
Johnson was notified of King’s assassination as he readied for a trip to Hawaii. He postponed the trip, called King’s wife to offer condolences and declared April 7 a national day of mourning.
The front pages
To see how the world reacted to King’s assassination, click here.
Walter Cronkite on CBS
WBS radio tribute
Coretta Scott King two days after her husband’s assassination
Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
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