Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers a speech at a Chicago Freedom Movement rally at Soldier Field on July 10, 1966. (Afro Newspaper/Gado/Getty Images)

History of Racial Injustice: Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he’d come to support black sanitation workers striking for job safety and better wages. Dr. King led an earlier march that ended in looting and violence, but after talking with local activists, he returned for another march scheduled for April 5.

On April 3, in his last speech, Dr. King said he had been to the mountaintop. “[A]nd I’ve 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.”

News of the assassination prompted major disturbances in over 100 American cities, resulting in some 40 deaths, 21,000 arrests, 2600 people injured, and $65 million in property damage. In Washington,  DC, President Lyndon Johnson called in 13,000 federal troops, who barricaded streets, fired tear gas into crowds, and mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol. Thirteen people were killed, many trapped in burning buildings. By April 8, some 700 businesses had been destroyed, and 5000 jobs were permanently lost, devastating the District’s black neighborhoods.

In Chicago, 3000 National Guard troops arrived to back up police. Fires, shootings, and looting continued through Sunday night. Mayor Richard J. Daley later told reporters he had ordered police “to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand . . . and . . . to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city.” No official death toll was given, but published accounts say nine to 11 people died; 350 were arrested for looting, and 162 buildings were destroyed by arson. Bulldozers left behind vacant lots that remained empty three decades later.