By TOM GODFREY
It was 47 years ago last week that U.S. civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain by an assassin’s bullet in a shot that changed the world forever.
The Baptist minister and human rights activist was killed on April 4, 1968 as he stood on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
Rev. King, 39, then an internationally known figure, was in Tennessee to support a strike by sanitation workers when he was assassinated.
He had received many death threats before but had earned his reputation the hard way by fighting for the then not-popular rights and freedoms for Blacks.
King was deeply involved with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott in which Blacks refused to ride that city’s public transit system for 381 days, stemming from the arrest of Rosa Parks for not giving up a seat on a bus to a White person.
A husband and father, King played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African-Americans in the South and other areas, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He led the 1963 historic march to Washington, D.C., that drew more than 200,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial, where he made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, emphasizing his belief that someday all men can be equals.
At 35, King was the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He donated his 1964 prize money, a tidy sum then of $54,123 (US) to the civil rights movement.
King’s prominence grew with his many marches in support of voting or housing rights for Black and segregated workers. His message of nonviolent struggle has since spread across the world.
At the time of his death, he was trying to organize a protest in Washington against poverty, and had become outspoken as an opponent of the Vietnam War.
His words and philosophy have been taught in schools in Toronto and across the world and have enlightened generations of students. And still do to this day.
His “I Have a Dream” speech is a favourite of many young people and not long ago I heard the lines in a rap song. It’s even been reprinted on T-shirts, posters and running shoes.
King was the inspiration for many, including U.S. President Barack Obama, and it was to no one’s surprise that his murder sparked riots and demonstrations in more than 100 cities across the U.S., including one right here in Toronto, that ended at the U.S. Consulate General.
Black-and-white news photos from 1968 show an orderly group of about 100 young Toronto Blacks with signs rallying downtown on the night of King’s death.
People also took to churches to pray for his wife, Coretta, and their young family.
U.S. police at this time had launched an international search for fugitive killer James Earl Ray, who believe it or not, was hiding right here on the streets of Toronto.
Ray, it seems, had fled to Toronto after the slaying and lived for about a month in Parkdale and other areas as he acquired a Canadian passport under a different name.
He used the document to fly to Britain and was captured at London Heathrow Airport in July 1968 while trying to return to Canada using the flagged passport.
He was extradited to Tennessee to stand trial for King’s murder and in 1969 agreed to a plea bargain and was sentenced to 99 years in prison, where he died in 1998.
In 1983, former President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a U.S. federal holiday in honour of Dr. King that is observed on the third Monday of January.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is also celebrated in Canada and other countries worldwide.
The day is a reaffirmation of basic human rights, equality and justice for many, including me and my family.