Arguably , the Founding Fathers of the American Republic aside, no other single name has affected the imagination and the parlance of the latter generations more than that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, the name today carries with it so much gravitas, symbolism and power that it’s hard to believe that when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, Dr. King was only 39 and had only been on national consciousness for only 13 short, albeit turbulent and transformative, years.
It’s also hard to believe that King’s popularity was already declining before that fateful April morning, and the charismatic preacher himself was a tired man. Negative ratings for him gradually increased since 1964, and in 1967, for the first time in almost a decade, King’s name was left off the Gallup-poll list of the 10 most admired Americans. His foreign policy initiatives such as trying to mediate in the Nigerian-Biafran War were not well-received; supports from his financial backers, universities and publishers were dwindling.
It was only partially because of FBI bullying after Dr. King refused to yield to FBI’s blackmails and accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. As Michael Eric Dyson wrote, “The more he protested poverty, denounced the Vietnam War and lamented the unconscious racism of many whites, the more he lost favor and footing in white America…In many ways King was socially and politically dead before he was killed. Martyrdom saved him from becoming a pariah to the white mainstream.”
Indeed, by shooting him in Memphis, James Earl Ray created a martyr, complete with an iconic photographic relic. The iconic image of Dr. King dying was captured by Joseph Louw, a young black South African photographer who was working with King on a documentary film. He was staying at the same motel just a few doors away, and when Louw heard a shot he ran out to see King lying on the balcony floor, and his aides signaling to police below the direction from which the assassin’s bullet came. Afterwards, Louw asked the Memphis-based photographer Ernest C. Withers (known as the “original civil rights photographer”) the permission to use the latter’s darkroom to develop the film.
The next day, it was on the front pages all over the world.