Had Joseph Louw decided to finish his dinner on April 4, 1968, the photographs that captured the horror of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination may never have come to be. Louw, a young South African photographer and filmmaker at work on a documentary about King, had been eating dinner in a Memphis restaurant during the hour before tragedy struck. A sudden urge to watch the NBC nightly news brought him back to the Lorraine Motel, where he soon heard a single shot fired.
Louw, who was staying three doors down from King, immediately rushed onto the balcony, where he saw King collapse to the ground. After realizing there was nothing he could do to help, he ran inside to get his camera. “At first,” he told LIFE the following week, “it was just a matter of realizing the horror of the thing. Then I knew I must record it for the world to see.”
Louw captured the chaos and emotion that hovered over that April evening. He shot four rolls of film, but one image in particular remains emblazoned on the memories of those alive to see it at the time. In the moments following the shot, as King lay unconscious on the balcony, his comrades turned their attention to a sight in the distance: the assassin, getting away. They pointed their fingers in concert in the direction of his flight.
Louw rushed to the studio of fellow photographer Ernest C. Withers to develop the film. As he did, his hands shook. “I remember the last stage of developing,” he said. “It was the longest 10 minutes of my life. The first picture I looked at was Dr. King laying behind the railing. I never did photograph him full in the face. I felt I had to keep my distance and respect.”