The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson were chatting, King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., and Jackson in the parking lot below, when the shot rang out. King “toppled to the concrete second-floor walkway. Blood gushed from the right jaw and neck. His necktie had been ripped off by the blast.”
That’s according to the New York Times’s April 5, 1968, account of King’s assassination, “Martin Luther King Is Slain in Memphis; A White Is Suspected; Guard Called Out,” by Earl Caldwell.
The account is found in The New York Times’s “Book of Politics: 167 Years of Covering the State of the Union” (Sterling, 2018), with select Times articles covering “Presidents and their Elections,” “War,” “The Economy,” “Race and Civil Rights,” “Other Hot-Button Issues,” “The Rise of the Right,” and “Political Scandals.” Times columnist Maureen Dowd, a Pulitzer Prize winner who famously said her job is “to pique power,” wrote the foreword.
They say journalism is history’s first draft. In reading this book, with news accounts dating back as far as 1860 and as recently as 2017, you understand why. The reader is brought to the people and places that once dominated the news.
I was particularly struck by the account of King’s death, in no small measure because I happened to read it just as Black History Month was getting under way this February.
The harsh details of the scene paint an indelible portrait of chaos after the shooting. “The police had been circulating throughout the motel area on precautionary patrols,” Caldwell wrote. “After the shot, [Solomon] Jones [King’s driver] said he saw a man ‘with something white on his face’ creep away from a thicket across the street.
“Someone rushed up with a towel to stem the flow of Dr. King’s blood.”
From this account, we know that King, 39, stayed in Room 306. The killer, later identified as James Earl Ray, drove a white Mustang that day. He fired a single shot at King with a Remington rifle. King did not die instantly. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. Central standard time at nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital.
It was among the gravest days in American history. To read the original account of King’s assassination was a powerful experience. It took my breath away. I’ve watched so many films and TV shows on King’s life and times, and have read numerous reports on his death, but they all pale in comparison to The Times’s account. They were all watered-down versions of the truth. The Times was unflinching in its reporting of the last moments of King’s life.
Through The Times account, we know King’s final request: He had asked a musician friend to play a “Negro spiritual,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” at a rally to support local sanitation workers later that day.
In reading this book, we understand why newspapers are so desperately needed. They fill in details and provide context. They breathe life into the people who are caught up in terrible events. We see the confusion they experienced. We feel their pain.
We also see joy. In “Capital Is Occupied By a Gentle Army” (Aug. 29, 1963), by Russell Baker, we learn about the scene surrounding the March on Washington, at which King delivered his famed “I Have a Dream” speech to a massive crowd that fanned out from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.
“No one could remember an invading army quite as gentle as the 200,000 civil rights marchers who occupied Washington today,” Baker began. “For the most part, they came silently during the night and early morning, occupied the great shaded boulevards along the Mall, and spread through the parklands between the Washington Monument and the Potomac.”
Baker, a Times reporter and columnist from 1962 to 1998, died last January at age 93. He was truly one of America’s great writers, and you understand why in this single account of the March on Washington.
He interviewed many average folks in the crowd. “Mostly, people who had traveled together sat on the grass or posed for group portraits against the monument like tourists on a rare visit to the capital,” Baker wrote. “Here and there, little groups stood in the sunlight and sand. A group of 75 young people from Danville, Va., came dressed in white sweatshirts with crudely cut mourning bands on their sleeves.”
From Baker’s account, we learn that the program, with a lineup of the nation’s great singers and thinkers, ran too long. “To many of the marchers, the program must have begun to seem like eternity, and the great crowd slowly began dissolving to the edges,” Baker wrote.
Through this Times book, mostly what you see is a complex nation struggling to define itself, to understand its destiny. We see the hardships the nation has faced, along with its triumphs. We see unvarnished truth.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.