Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the American Civil Rights Movement,
was assassinated on 4 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee while lending
support to a sanitation workers' strike. He was shot by James Earl
Ray at approximately 7:05 P.M. Ray's bullet struck King as he was
standing on his balcony at the Lorraine Motel; King died approximately
one hour later. Although no television cameras were in the vicinity
at the time of the assassination, television coverage of the event
reports of King's wounding appeared first, but reporters remained
consistent with the traditional news format, making early reports
of the shooting seem both impersonal and inaccurate. The assassination
took place at the same time as the evening news, and several anchormen
received the information during their live broadcasts and because
details of the shooting were not yet clear, inaccurate information
was offered in several cases. Julian Barber of WTTG in Washington,
D.C., for example, mistakenly reported that King had been shot while
in his car. Following this presentation of incorrect details, Barber
then proceeded to introduce the station's weatherman. The rest of
the newscast followed a standard format with only minor interruptions
providing information about King's condition.
Kondrashov recalls that Walter Cronkite had almost finished delivering
his report on The CBS Evening News when he received word
of King's wounding. Visibly shaken, he announced the shooting. Moments
after the announcement, however, the news program faded into commercial
advertising. With little information available, the networks continued
with their regularly scheduled programming and only later interrupted
the programs with their station logos. At that point an anonymous
voice announced that King was dead.
received word of King's death, all three networks interrupted programming
with news programs. Awaiting President Lyndon Johnson's statement,
all three featured anchormen discussing King's life and his contributions
to the Civil Rights Movement. The networks then broadcast President
Johnson's statement in which he called for Americans to "reject
the blind violence" which had killed the "apostle of nonviolence."
In addition, the networks also covered Hubert Humphries' response,
and presented footage of King's prophetic speech from 3 April in
which he acknowledged the precarious stage of his life. Although
the networks had reporters positioned in Memphis, there were no
television reporters on the scene because an official curfew had
been imposed on the city in an attempt to prevent violence.
to McKnight, the immediacy of the television coverage prompted riots
in over 60 American cities including Chicago, Denver, and Baltimore.
Television coverage of King's death and the riots which it sparked
continued for the next five days. King's life was featured on morning
shows (e.g., NBC's The Today Show), evening news programs, and special
programs. The riots themselves commanded extensive television coverage
(e.g., CBS' News Nite special on the Riots). Carter suggests
that the riots following King's assassination represent a significant
shift from previous riotous activities, from responses dealing primarily
with local issues to the national focus emerging in the wake of
the King riots. National television coverage of the circumstances
surrounding the King assassination may have contributed to this
assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a significant moment
in the history of the Civil Rights Movement as well as in the history
of the United States. In death, as in life, Dr. King influenced
millions of Americans. From the first reports of his shooting to
the coverage of his funeral services on 9 April at the Ebenezer
Church on the Morehouse College Campus, television closely followed
his struggle. Even after his death, news coverage of King's legacy
continued when, on 11 April President Johnson signed the Civil Rights
G.L. "In the Narrows of the 1960's U.S. Black Rioting." Journal
of Conflict Resolution (Ann Arbor, Michigan), 1986.
S. and translated by Keith Hammond. The Life and Death of Martin
Luther King. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1981.
D.L. King: A Biography. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois
Press, 1970; 2nd edition 1978.
G.D. "The 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike and the FBI: A Case Study
in Urban Surveillance." South Atlantic Quarterly (Durham,
North Carolina), 1984.