9 Moving Reactions to Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Assassination

5 minute read

When Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968, it was, TIME declared, “both a symbol and a symptom of the nation’s racial malaise.” King had been in the Tennessee city to support a garbage-collectors’ strike, and was staying at an inexpensive motel, having been chastened for originally booking a stay at a place perceived as too fancy. He stepped out onto the motel “to take the evening air,” per TIME, and talk with co-workers. It was then that a bullet left a nearby building and found the civil-rights leader.

In the tumultuous weeks that followed the assassination, TIME readers responded with a flood of letters to the editor. Some of the most moving, from the April 19 and April 26 issues, are below.

From Joyce K. Laird of Lafayette, Calif.:

Sir: Martin Luther King was murdered because he was our uncomfortable conscience. I am filled with shame and loathing for my race. My heart grieves for his family and friends who must abruptly substitute memories for his warm reality. My mind cries out to know how I, one single me, insulated in my white suburb, can redress the ancient wrongs.

From John Barry of Los Angeles:

Sir: His great, huge face is set forever in our memories; be it that his vision of brotherhood sets in our hearts.

From James Thompson, a pastor in West Branch, Iowa:

Sir: Why must we always kill our prophets before we will listen to them?

From Dorothy S. Saunders of Cherry Hill, N.J.:

Sir: When statesmen look to give aid to the uncivilized and underdeveloped countries of the world, please let ours be first on their list.

From Douglas P. Adams, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

Sir: President Johnson last month told 200 Southern Baptist leaders, “There is no Southern or Northern problem, only an American problem, when it comes to the rights of citizens. The only lasting solution won’t cost a cent—but it will be the hardest to achieve.” He then said this would require a change in men’s hearts—in the way they see and treat their neighbors. No other white leader’s remarks and few colored spokesmen have isolated and described so well the deep and festering wound responsible for the outbreaks—namely, the long-ingrained conviction and the sustained conduct in and by millions of whites that the Negro is an inferior person. The glib, commonplace expression “free, white and twenty-one” epitomizes this ghastly and disastrous view. The noise and smoke in urban areas are but echoes of battles lost in homes, schools and churches where moment by moment the American character is forged. It should be obvious that, in country or city, the Negro throughout this nation will continue to fight desperately for the honest answer to his plight—for equality status. Why? Simply because being an American has come to signify to him what it does for the rest of us—the dignity of the individual. It is those who would deprive him of this heritage who are totally irresponsible and utterly unAmerican.

From Deborah Preble of Pasadena, Calif.:

Sir: How do you explain “[n—-r]” to the tearful face of a six-year-old? That the zoo is for whites only? How do you enlist a soldier to lay down his life for freedom—of which he knows not? How do you tell a young mother to teach her young that tear gas, dogs and fiery crosses should instill a zest for self-dignity? How do you tell the world that a great man, a black man, has been shot by a white man for wanting to be a free man?

From Mrs. John Vadnais of St. Paul:

Sir: Most of the time I was indifferent to the Rev. Martin Luther King‘s activities. Occasionally I scoffed at his publicity, although I was unconsciously reassured that someone was doing something for humanity. But I cried at his murder. Possibly King’s beautiful dream will ultimately result in his being remembered as a man, not a black man. The first step was taken as a thoughtful America united in mourning for a martyred leader. At any rate, our flag waved in a fellow American’s memory.

From Rev. Lewis P. Bohler Jr. of Los Angeles:

Sir: As a Negro, I, too, must bear my share of the shame and horror of Dr. King’s untimely death. Whether I burn or kill (by God’s grace, I hope to do neither), I am associated with those who do. And we dare to point indiscriminate accusing fingers at whites. The answer to whether Dr. King labored in vain will not be determined alone by the success or failure of civil rights legislation or by improvement of housing and economic opportunities for minorities, but also by the degree to which all of us, blacks and whites, are committed to the pursuit and practice of nonviolence and love. Any commitment short of total is a farce.

From P. Sudhir of Madras, India:

Sir: Twice within five years, we had to hear from the land that all others strive to emulate, the harsh, frightening crack of an assassin’s rifle. The shots that were echoing around the world after the death of John F. Kennedy, shaking the belief that the U.S.A. is the last place where the courage of an individual to fight against man’s inhumanity to man would be met with the cruel bullet of an assassin, had hardly died away. And now Dr. King is dead, crucified on the cross hairs of a madman’s telescopic sights. Yes, that is the excuse we give ourselves. It is the work of a demented individual. Perhaps if we repeat it often enough, we might even come to believe it.

Read TIME’s full coverage of the assassination, here in the TIME Vault: April 12, 1968

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com