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Q&A | Martin Luther King, Jr.

Forty years later, remembering King's legacy

The date was April 4, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. dressed for dinner. He laughed with friends. He hoped his host would prepare a good Southern meal. A step out onto the balcony of his motel and his fate changed. Forty years later, King's assassination still carries the weight of regret for what could have been and the longing for answers.

Why was Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis?

A group of black sanitation workers had gone on strike protesting poor wages. King was asked to lead a march of the workers. The day before his assassination, King delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ. The next day, while standing on the balcony of his second floor room at the Lorraine Motel, he was shot.

What happened to the assassin?

James Earl Ray, an open racist and criminal, fled the country. He was arrested two months later at Heathrow Airport, according to news reports. After being extradited to Tennessee, Ray was convicted of murder and accepted a guilty plea deal to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died of liver disease in 1998.

Was it part of a conspiracy?

Although King's shooter confessed, he recanted three days later. During many appeals, he alluded to conspiracy theories, including being set up by the U.S. government. The CIA, Memphis police, the FBI and the Army also were said to be involved. King's family has said they believe it was a government plot. Nothing has ever been proven.

How many states honor King's birthday?

On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing a legal holiday honoring him. By 1999, all 50 states observed the holiday, though each handles it differently.

What has been done to remember King?

His legacy lives through the study of his ideology and teachings. His nonviolent protests are still copied, discussed and debated. In Washington, D.C., a $100-million memorial is being built on four acres along the edge of the Tidal Basin, between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. He is the first African-American to be honored with a memorial in the National Mall.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at or (727) 893-8828.

Forty years later, remembering King's legacy 04/03/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 11:55am]
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