Martin Luther King Day is intended to celebrate the life of civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, Jr. Courthouses shut down, business is quiet and social media lights up with tributes to MLK. Killer Mike, Daddy-O of Stetsasonic and Public Enemy's Chuck D are just a handful of Hip Hop artists commemorating Dr. King's legacy.
Born in Atlanta, Dr. King was a Baptist minster before becoming the face of the civil rights movement in 1955. He organized and led marches for the right to vote, desegregation, labor rights, and other civil rights. In 1955, he oversaw the Montgomery bus boycott and later became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance in 1964.
But four years later, Dr. King's life would come to an abrupt and tragic end. On April 3, 1968, the 39-year-old King addressed a rally and delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address at Mason Temple in Memphis. Dr. King's flight there had been delayed by a bomb threat against his plane, which he touched on during his speech.
"Then I got to Memphis," he said. "And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.
"But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
Less than 24 hours later, Dr. King was fatally shot by James Earl Ray at 6:01 p.m. as he stood on the Lorraine Motel's second-floor balcony. The bullet entered through his right cheek, smashing his jaw, then traveled down his spinal cord before lodging in his shoulder. Although he was rushed into surgery, Dr. King died roughly one hour later. While Dr. King was only 39, the autopsy revealed he had the heart of a 60 year old, something examiners attributed to the stress of the civil rights movement. Dr. King's death sparked race riots in several cities across the United States, including Washington D.C., Chicago and Kansas City.
Two months after King's death, James Earl Ray—a fugitive at the time—was captured at London Heathrow Airport while trying to leave England on a false Canadian passport. He was ultimately sentenced to 99 years in prison. Dr. King's remains are kept at Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta.