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The Maundy Monday Newsletter - This Week in History April 3 - 9.
The New Rebel Hotel sat off dusty US Highway 78 in Memphis, Tennessee. When you pull up to the red sign, you are greeted by a Confederate soldier standing to the left of the name. Above is a Triple-A logo, signaling that you can trust your stay will be quality despite the hostile moniker.
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The lobby was small, with a couch and a few chairs with deep blue vinyl seats that sat underneath a painting of a plantation with rows and rows of cotton. Cigarette trays were scattered about, while a beige desk was tucked in the corner for travelers who wished to complete work or read a book. A rotary telephone sat on a table made specifically for it, allowing the guests to reach the outside world.
Small pine trees were planted outside each room, giving shade and muting the sounds of cars. The ranch-style lodge was not meant for regal guests but a haven for those who didn’t want people to know who they were. They were comfortable in their cocoon of the Lost Cause.
On Thursday morning, April 4, 1968, fugitive James Earl Ray woke up in his room, turned on the television, and learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. was staying just around the corner at the Lorraine Hotel. He caught a break when the news announced that King would be in room 306.
Ray knew King would be in Memphis, having read a newspaper in Atlanta, Georgia, announcing his return to the city to lead another march supporting black workers to protest wages and poor working conditions imposed by the city.
This was March 30, and Ray, under one of his many aliases, had purchased a rifle, ammunition, and a scope, while telling the seller he was off to hunt with his brother. Instead, he hit the road to drive north on Highway 78 for a rendezvous that the Civil Rights leader didn’t know he would be a part of.
It’s now five days later, and with the detailed information secured, Ray immediately checks out and heads to Bessie Brewer’s Rooming House and rents a room under the name John Willard. He requests room 5B, which overlooks a small street towards the Lorraine, and discovers the communal bathroom down the hall has a direct view of room 306.
It was around 4:30 p.m., and Ray settled in and watched for King. The rendezvous will be sudden and over quickly.
At 6:00, MLK and his friend, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, exit room 306. They are getting ready for dinner. King hangs onto the railing outside and talks to his driver, who is below, waiting by the car. Other members of the King’s party were milling about and preparing for the evening festivities. The temperature was a cool 65 degrees.
A minute later, King is struck in the face by a bullet from Ray’s Remington Model 760 rifle. He’s hit with such force that his necktie flies off. The shell breaks his jaw, cuts through his spine, and settles into his shoulder. His body is filled with blood, but he has a faint pulse. People rush to King and begin to administer his wounds.
Emergency workers arrive, and King is sprinted to St. Joseph’s Hospital. He dies an hour later.
His assassin escapes as police descend onto the scene. In the chaos, Ray drops his weapon and his travel bag. He jumps into his White Ford Mustang and heads south on Highway 78, where he gets stuck in traffic.
In the following days, riots destroy cities nationwide, and President Johnson declares a state of emergency. It will be another two months before Ray is apprehended in a London airport, trying for a second time to flee to Africa. He would plead guilty and be sentenced to 99 years, where he would die in a prison hospital in 1998. He was cremated, and his ashes were sent to his ancestral home in Ireland—a new rebel to the end.
As I mentioned last week, 1968 was a crazy year.
Okay, let's highlight what else happened this week. Here's what I got:
1. President Truman signed the Marshall Plan on April 3, 1948. The 33rd president signed on to provide Western Europe with billions of dollars to rebuild itself and stave off communism. This is another time where socialism and capitalism are the best tag team partners ever.
2. The World Trade Center opened on April 4, 1973. After seven years of construction, pouring rain greeted those who came to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Towers that transformed lower Manhattan. After the attacks of 9/11 brought the Towers and surrounding buildings down, One World Trade Center was completed in 2014, and other buildings continue to be in different stages of construction on the original site.
3. The 17th Amendment was ratified on April 8, 1913. Subscriber @MDDake is patiently waiting for this amendment, which allows the direct election of US Senators to be ranked. Noticed I used the word patiently. I may rank it soon. Maybe not. The suspense continues.
Trump is back in the news, or maybe he never left, but a reader asked me for some historical perspectives on the recent indictment announcement from last week. I did say you could ask me anything! I’ll tackle this over the week and have something for you on Friday.
Thanks as always for reading and supporting Okay History.
I hope you have a fantastic week, and see you on Friday.