The time is the 4th of April 1968, a cool Spring evening close on six pm. The place is a predominantly black neighborhood on the south edge of downtown Memphis, Tennessee. An area of run-down homes and low incomes. At 450 Mulberry Street there sits a small, modestly upscale boarding establishment, the Lorraine Motel. It is two stories and there is a pool, installed by the motel’s long time owner, Mr. Walter Bailey. The motel is popular among black musicians who frequent the nearby Stax Records. Over the years these have included Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Aretha Franklin, Ethel Waters, and Otis Redding before his death the year before.
Across the street and beyond a small brushy knoll is a two-story brick rooming house. 422 Main Street. On the second floor of this shoddy establishment, at the window of a small bathroom, a man named James Earl Ray waits with a 30.06 rifle. Ray has a clear view of the Lorraine Motel, of room 306 on the second floor.
It is one minute after six in the evening and, in the time it takes a bullet to fly the length of the knoll, everything changes.
Martin Luther King, 39 years old, has already survived one assassination attempt. Ten years earlier, on September 20th, 1958, a deranged black woman with the bewitched name of Izola Curr plunged a steel letter opener into his chest—his sternum actually—while he was holding a book signing at a Harlem bookstore. Three hours of emergency surgery at Harlem Hospital saved his life. The blade missed his aorta by a hair’s breath.
He will not be nearly so lucky this time…
In all of American history, surely one of the most atrocious acts of gun violence took place on the evening of April 4, 1968. No less a personage than George Wallace, the avowed segregationist, called the shot that rang out at 6:01 pm in Memphis, Tennessee “a senseless, regrettable act.” President Lyndon Johnson canceled an important trip to Hawaii—he had been scheduled to meet with his military commanders about strategy in Vietnam—upon learning of King’s death.
Over 100 American cities erupted into rioting on the news of what this single gunshot wrought: the stilling of the greatest single voice in the American civil rights movement, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
These facts are well known and not in dispute: King was shot at 6:01 pm and was pronounced dead at 7:05 pm at St. Joseph’s Hospital after a failed attempt at open cardiac massage. He was 39 years old.
According to King biographer Taylor Branch (At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68), King was standing on the balcony outside room 306 on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel when Jesse Jackson hollered up to him: “Doc, you remember Ben Branch?” King replied “Oh yes, he’s my man.” King then said, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand,’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
Ben Branch replied “Okay, Doc, I will.”
There was no reply.
King had spoken his last words, and in the words of biographer Taylor Branch, time on the balcony had turned lethal and King’s sojourn on earth went blank.
But did it? Did it do so immediately? Was King doomed the moment that bullet crashed through him? Is there any action that might have saved his life as he lay supine on that balcony. Bleeding profusely from a wound to his right jaw and neck? He wasn’t pronounced dead for 64 minutes. Was he, in fact, alive during that time? Was there ever a chance he could have been saved by the relatively crude trauma care of 1968? And how about today? If King was shot in 2013, might he survive?
The answers to these questions and more are interesting and worth pursueing. They illustrate, if nothing more, how far trauma care has come in the forty-five years since that fateful night. Based on a close reading of eyewitness reports, the autopsy filing, the 1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations’ investigation into the assassination of Martin Luther King, and other sources, I have put together a creative but nonfictitious account of the efforts to save Dr. King’s life in the 64 minutes that followed his shooting.
This is an intense, no holds barred look at what transpired in 1968, and an equally intense account of what might occur under similar circumstances today. If you have any interest in medicine, surgery, the drama of the emergency room, or trauma in general, you won’t want to miss this.
SAVING KING is about one of life’s harder moments. Available now for the Amazon Kindle. Just 99¢ & you can touch a piece of history.
Now that’s damn interesting!