This week in history: Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated

On April 4, 1968, civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Here’s how the Chicago Daily News covered the murder in the city and in Memphis.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaks at El Bethel Baptish Church in Chicago

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at El Bethel Baptish Church in Chicago.

Ralph Arvidson/Chicago Sun-Times

As published in the Chicago Daily News. sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And 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.”

The day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those poignant words, an assassin fatally shot him on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of his Memphis motel.

King’s death shocked the nation, and the Chicago Daily News snapped into action to honor him.

Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a eulogy for King specially for the Daily News. Her words graced the front page of the paper on April 5.

“A man went forth with gifts./ He was a prose poem./ He was a tragic grace./ He was a warm music,” she wrote.

Another front-page short published that day described how residents in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods mourned together by turning on their car headlights on Friday night. The brief offered few details, but it was “apparently meant to symbolize a funeral procession for Dr. King.” The gesture spread to other neighborhoods across the city.

The Daily News also sent reporter Robert Gruenberg down to Memphis to cover the fallout. While he was there, Gruenberg took a tour of the nearby flophouse where the sniper took his shot at King.

“By standing in the bathtub of the second-floor bathroom, the assassin would have had a clear view of the motel balcony on which Dr. King was standing when he was shot,” Gruenberg wrote.

The reporter described the 16-room flophouse as “something out of a bad old movie. Inside the common bathroom, he observed just one exposed lightbulb and a dirty towel “draped around the pipe.” The linoleum floor looked worn-out.

Gruenberg even scored an interview with landlady Bessie Brewer, who told him the assassin “gave the name ‘John Willard’ and spoke with a Southern accent.”

Brewer said she originally showed the assassin to a $10-a-week room, but he told her “I just want a sleeping room.” Instead, she led him to a “ramshackled $8.50-a-week room in another wing that was near Dr. King’s motel.” He took it without looking inside, Brewer told Gruenberg.

The room, the reporter said, “contains dirty, broken furniture and has smoke-stained walls. The door is broken and a piece of wire is used for a door handle.”

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