Emmett Till. Medgar Evers. Harry and Harriette Moore. The civil rights movement had lost more than its fair share of heroes by 1968. But when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of a Memphis hotel on April 4 of that year, it seemed like the death knell for one of the United States’ most effective—and divisive—social movements.
As word of the assassination spread, public and private mourning for King, including multiple funerals and a nationwide period of grief began. So did riots, which broke out in nearly 100 American cities, sparked by King’s death but fueled by longstanding social inequity and discrimination.
President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a day of mourning in King’s honor. In the immediate aftermath of King’s murder, Robert F. Kennedy, then the presumed Democratic nominee for president, quickly addressed King’s death, urging calm and asking people to choose love over lawlessness and work toward justice.
Three days after his death, Nina Simone performed a brand-new song written by her bass player, Gene Taylor, in response to the assassination. “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)" was a 15-minute-long cry of pain that asked what would happen now that King was gone. “Why was he killed?” she said later. “It was bigotry that sealed his fate.”
King’s death was marked by a memorial service at the funeral home where King was laid out and two funerals in Atlanta, Georgia. The first was held for a group of family and friends in King’s spiritual home: Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father had both served as pastor. During the ceremony, Coretta Scott King, his wife, appeared “a dry-eyed frieze of heartbreak” to one reporter. She requested that the church play a recording of “The Drum Major Instinct,” a sermon her husband had delivered earlier that year. In it, he said he didn’t want a long funeral or eulogy, and that he hoped people would mention that he had given his life to serving others.
After the private funeral, the mourners walked three miles to Morehouse College with a simple farm cart that contained King’s casket. A hundred thousand mourners lined the streets of Atlanta. Then, at the college, King was eulogized by his friend Benjamin Mays, who had promised him he’d do so if he died before King. (King promised the same to Mays.)
"Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged the interracial wrongs of his country without a gun,” said Mays. “And he had the faith to believe that he would win the battle for social justice.” King hadn’t used a gun. But the one wielded by assassin James Earl Ray had silenced the voice of one of the nation’s greatest figures. He was just 39 years old.