Sunday, March 8, 2009

Dr. King Is Slain in Memphis

On April 5, 1968, one day after his assassination, the biggest headline, featured at the top of the front page of The Washington Post, read, “Dr. King Is Slain in Memphis.” Above the article, a smaller sub-headline reads, “Troops Ordered Into City,” informing the reader of actions implicated by his death. The byline reads “From News Dispatches”, with a dateline of Memphis, Tennessee, April 4. The article begins with a hard news lead:

“The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed by a sniper today when he strolled alone onto the balcony of his hotel.”

The lead informs the reader of the basic elements of the story by being direct. When writing stories involving deaths, one things I’ve been taught to avoid is showing off your writing skills. When news is breaking with deaths involved, the reader does not care how eloquently it is put, and it can come off as being disrespectful. By choosing a hard news lead, the reader is able to be informed and not sidetracked by the language. I think this speaks to the contemporary writing style of The Washington Post in the late 1960s.

The grafs following the lead address the most newsworthy topics of the article: “Gov. Buford Ellington ordered 4000 National Guard troops into the city and a curfew was imposed.”; “Unrest immediately broke out in the Negro district.”; police blocked a five-block area surrounding “the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. King was slain.” Most importantly, in the fourth graf, the subtitle reads, “Two Men Are Held.” As you read the next few grafs, you learn that it is unknown if these two men are connected with the shooting, yet police “issued a bulletin for a young white man in dark clothes” who apparently ran across the street from the hotel and dropped an automatic rifle with a scope and left in a car. Police are also attributed with an alert that had “been broadcast for a blue, late-model Mustang […].” These elements are crucial to the story, as it is breaking and no one had been arrested for Dr. King’s killing.

While the first part of the article addresses the most newsworthy parts of the story, Dr. King’s killing, the immediate ordering of National Guard troops and possible suspects, the second part recreates a timeline leading to Dr. King’s killing. Rev. Andrew Young, executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), is interviewed. He said Dr. King was shot “in the neck and lower right part of his face”, adding, “He didn’t say a word; he didn’t move.” Not only does Rev. Young’s quotes paint a painfully sad image, coming from a personal friend of Dr. King’s, the reader feels a strong sense of sadness on several levels.

The article then goes on to recount the series of events following the shooting. At St. Joseph’s Hospital, Dr. King was declared dead. Assistant Police Chief Henry Lux is also attributed with declaring the death of Dr. King. Frank Holloman, police director, is quoted as saying, “We are in a state of emergency here.” This is another effective quote which categorizes the severity of the event. To give further context, it was also being investigated by the FBI.

The remainder of the article explains Dr. King was in Memphis for a demonstration to support Memphis sanitation workers. Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ben Branch are also quoted, as they were with Dr. King, preparing to eat dinner, when he was shot. Their quotes provide a first-hand experience to the events, as witnessed from the hotel. The article ends with U.S. District Judge Bailey Brown hearing arguments that challenged a Federal court ban on the march. Police Chief J.C. MacDonald was asked by Judge Brown if Memphis would stay quiet “if the restraining order were continued.” MacDonald said, “If the court allows any sort of march we’re going to need some help.”

On April 4,1968, The New York Times ran an article titled, “McKissick Says Nonviolence Has Become Dead Philosophy.” The article, with a dateline of Cleveland, April 4 and no byline, is about Floyd B. McKissick, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality. The lead informs that McKissisck “said tonight that the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meant the end of the nonviolent philosophy.” I thought this was interesting commentary. McKissick called Dr. King “the last prince of nonviolence” and said “nonviolence is a dead philosophy and it was no the black people that killed it. It was the white people that killed nonviolence and white racists at that.” For a time that was full of segregation and racism, it is interesting to see someone speaking against white racism and calling the events “a horror.” McKissick would not make predictions about what would happened as a result of the assassination, yet his quotes are shocking to me that they would get printed at all. Another interesting side note, is that this article was buried on page 26, maybe not as progressive as one would think The New York Times is.

The reporter for The Washington Post did a great job of interviewing police officials and personal friend’s of Dr. King to paint a portrait of what happened/was happening in the wake of Dr. King’s death. The 1960s was a time of great change and uncertainties, and there is no contemporary new story comparable to the death of Dr. King. The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., however, is to stand up for your beliefs, no matter what. In that respect, I would say any even in which masses gather to march and protest share in his spirit. Most recently, thousands gathered in San Francisco, and all over the state, to march for same-sex marriage, which I would compare to the nature of Dr. King’s legacy.

"Dr. King Is Slain in Memphis." The Washington Post. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Leonard Library, San Francisco. 7 Mar. 2009 .

"McKissick Says Nonviolence Has Become Dead Philosophy." The New York Times. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Leonard Library, San Francisco. 7 Mar. 2009 .


  1. nice blog Alexis on the assassination of Dr. King. I especially like how in the beginning you mentioned the importance of getting right to the point when writing about a death, instead of showing off eloquent writing skills. Like I mentioned on Grace's blog, Dr. King's death was shocking, but his legacy will live on forever. it was also interesting that you added a statement from one of King's close friends, which does indeed add a big depth of emotion and sadness for readers. bravua on the final sentence comparing Dr. King's legacy to that of the current same-sex marriage struggle, because both issues do deal with people fighting for their god-given rights. nice way to finish the blog.