50 years later: Newsday’s MLK assassination coverage

On April 4, 1968, civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike, and although his safety had become a constant concern, according to a top aide King said only the day before, “I’d rather be dead than afraid.” Fifty years later, we mark the occasion by taking a look at Newsday’s coverage from the April 5, 1968 edition.

Newsday’s cover

In one of his last photos, King is smiling and looking undeterred upon receiving a court order the day before barring a protest march in Memphis, Tenn. Coretta Scott King is led from a car near her Atlanta home less than an hour after her husband’s death.

The scene in Memphis

Before the world knew the name James Earl Ray — who was arrested two months later at a London airport — police were looking for a young, dark-haired white man leaving the scene. King was struck by a single bullet from a 30.06 Remington pump rifle with a telescopic sight, fired from the window of a communal bathroom in a flophouse across the street from his hotel.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said he and others in the Rev. Dr. King’s party were getting ready to go to dinner when the shooting occured.

“King was on the second-floor balcony of the motel,” the Rev. Mr. Jackson said.”He had just bent over. If he had been standing up, he wouldn’t have been hit in the face.”

The Rev. Dr. King had just told Ben Branch: “My man, be sure to sing ‘Blessed Lord’ tonight and sing it well.” A shot then rang out, the Rev. Mr. Jackson said. The Rev. Mr. Jackson said the only sound the Rev. Dr. King uttered after that was: “Oh!”

LIers react

Newsday published separate stories with reactions from African-American and white Long Islanders.

From the story titled, “LI Negroes Recall JFK, Mourn King”

*John Head, 23, a Hofstra University student, said: “King had a lot planned for the summer. I would look to him when I felt I was being wronged and he would hold me back from violence. The same thing was true of Kennedy. They were killed because they did not believe in white supremacy.”

*An 18-year-old electronics technician in New Cassel, who did not want to be identified, spoke of the Rev. Dr. King’s death.

“I’ll put it this way,” the youth said, “he was the ice for the long hot summer.” The young man added, “We’re going to see the Civil War over again. It’s going to make the [Black] Muslims stronger. There was another Martin Luther who preached for peace. After he died, there was war too.”

*A group of Negroes were watching a newscast on television in Al and Mel’s Variety Store in Westbury. Barbara Nelson, a beautician, said, “I think it means more violence, possibly here … and other places.”

George Mack, another of those watching the broadcast sadly observed: We just lost a great man. He hated nobody. It’s as bad as when President Kennedy died.”

From the story titled, “LI Whites Tell of Grief, Fear”

*”Horror, just horror, that’s my reaction. It’s a disgrace,” said Mrs. Kay Sanker, a white Oceanside housewife. “No, I can’t say I was a great admirer of his, but he was a man of peace and this is a terrible, terrible thing that has happened to him.”

*Said Joseph Elliot, a bartender in Baldwin: “It’s awful. Those southerners, they’re wacky anyway. He shouldn’t have gone down there.”

*”I felt he was one of the few guys trying to look after the problem without violence,” said Ralph Hess, 37, of Valley Stream, an airlines employee who was spending the evening at a Baldwin bowling alley.

“It’s going to hurt,” he said, “I’m afraid there’s going to be a lot of trouble.”

LBJ reacts

President Lyndon Johnson said that when he heard “the terrible news of Dr. King’s death my heart went out to his people — especially to the young Americans who, I know, must wonder if they are to be denied a fullness of life because of the color of their skin.”

His statement was issued after a hastily summoned meeting at the White House of civil rights leaders, government officials and members of Congress. He said he had called to the White House the leaders of the Negro community for consultation, and went on to say: “No words of ours — no words of mine — can fill the void of the eloquent voice that has been stilled.”

Dignitaries react

*Richard Nixon: “Dr. King’s death is a great personal tragedy for everyone who knew him and a great tragedy for the nation.”

*Jackie Robinson: “Oh my God, I’m frightened. I pray to God this doesn’t end up in the street.”

*James Meredith, first African-American student at the University of Mississippi: “This is America’s answer to the peaceful, nonviolent way of obtaining rights in this country.”

*Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP: “The whole thing strikes you as very stupid on the part of crackpots. They’ve upset the applecart of the President, of the Congress and of the whole nation with this violent and senseless act. They threw Dr. King’s doctrine of nonviolence back in his face. They shot him down like a dog.”

*Nassau County Executive Eugene Nickerson: “What a terrible tragedy. The voice which spoke for peace and for freedom has been stilled. But we shall hear its call as long as love and justice have any claim on our hearts.”