NEW YORK (PIX11) — It was 55 years ago that civil rights leader Dr. King went to Memphis, Tennessee to support sanitation workers looking to unionize. Two years after I first met him during a march through Mississippi, I once again came face-to-face with him, this time as he lay in an open casket at the R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home. He had been murdered the day before, April 4, 1968, by a lone assassin, James Earl Ray. Hours after he was killed, I was dispatched from New York where I was a correspondent for the Mutual Broadcasting System.

Riots were already rocking cities across the nation as my plane was in the final approach to Memphis. Suddenly we were jolted severely, and my first thought was that we had been hit by something fired from below. So did my seatmate, veteran CBS reporter Ike Pappas, who had seen his share of violence during his coverage of the Vietnam War. He bolted from a deep sleep, fear written in his eyes, that we had been the target of an attack. Turned out, it was nothing more than turbulence.

There was a chill in the air as daylight filtered through the early morning clouds outside the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was shot hours earlier as he stood in front of his second-floor room. It was the dawning of one of the darkest days in American history.

For me, there was something surreal standing there, looking at stone-faced police officers overseeing an active crime scene against the backdrop of disbelieving mourners, their eyes swollen from tears, gathered in the parking lot. A young Jesse Jackson first emerged in the spotlight as the self-declared spokesman for the King family. He spoke of the civil rights leader’s greatness and the impact of his loss. Jackson was with King when he was shot and reportedly revealed, “I cradled him in my arms.”

As I interviewed people who were close to Dr. King, I learned that he may have prophesized his own death. In a speech the night before his murder, he spoke at the Mason Temple about threats that had been made on his life. My notes are fading now, but his words remain indelibly clear. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” he said.

“But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.” He continued, “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.” And he concluded, “I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything.”

Twenty-four hours later, Dr. Martin Luther King was dead at the age of 39.

It was quickly determined that the assassin’s bullet came from a dilapidated rooming house on Main Street, in plain sight of the Lorraine Motel, some 200 yards away. Once the police finished their investigation there, I managed to sneak inside. Bessie Brewers’ rooming house was a two-story building. It was rundown, with paint peeling from the walls and ceiling. The steps were broken and creaky. I’ll never forget the awful stench permeating the place. Rather than running down the hall to the community bathroom, some residents chose to use large metal pretzel cans to collect their urine and feces. One resident told me he heard a single shot and saw a man, later identified as James Earl Ray, run from the bathroom.

When no one was looking, I walked into the bathroom for a look-see at the assassin’s lair. With one foot on the ledge of the ceramic bathtub and the other on the toilet, I leaned on the ledge of the window facing the Lorraine Motel. I spoke into my tape recorder, describing the sights of an assassin. I realized that one did not have to be a marksman to hit a target 200 yards away with a high-powered rifle with a scope. Investigators later determined that Ray had to have his feet firmly planted in the bathtub to make his deadly shot.

About 60 cities were rocked by riots in the aftermath of Dr. King’s murder, including Memphis. Its famed Beale Street, the birthplace of the Blues, was off-limits because of a curfew. There was an eerie silence as I walked the desolate street, usually aglitter with flickering neon lights and the music emanating from the dozens of clubs along the street. In contrast, there was the sound of broken glass beneath my shuffling feet and the occasional rumble of military vehicles patrolling the area.

A local National Guard unit invited me to join them on patrol. It was a bit disconcerting as they placed me on the highest point at the rear of the jeep without a protective helmet. They teased me about being a “Yankee reporter.” We cruised the debris-littered streets, looking for looters. The guardsmen with me were young. One was 19, a couple of others 20. They had so much bravado as they waved their carbines in the air. I was appalled when one of them swung his weapon around and declared, “I want to get me a [expletive] head tonight.” Eventually, they abandoned their patrol and rolled the jeep into an apartment complex where one of their girlfriends was having a party. They were celebrating Dr. King’s death. There were no cabs available and I had to wait for the guardsmen to get me back to my hotel. I tried not to engage in conversation with any of the partygoers.

After King’s body was released by the medical examiner, he was taken to the R.S. Lewis and Sons funeral home where they worked 13 hours to properly prepare his body and clean the right side of his jaw that was shattered by the bullet that also fractured his spinal cord. Before the wake, I was one of three reporters in the chapel where King’s body was laid out in an open casket. The tearful shrills of a dozen women in black dresses occupying the front row of seats were piercing. It was hot and humid and emotional when Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, who assumed leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Andrew Young and two others stood over the casket. I was positioned in the background where I could whisper the emotional narrative of what was unfolding in front of me. Dr. King was laid out in a black suit. He bore no visible signs of his traumatic wound, except for a slight mark on his jaw. The funeral home had done a remarkable job camouflaging the wound. I was close enough to hear Abernathy, choked up and murmuring, “Martin, Martin,” as he reached out to gently touch his face. The grief and the magnitude of their loss were etched on the faces of those standing over the casket. They stood a few moments in silence, then Rev. Abernathy led the group in reciting The 23rd Psalm. I recorded it all, only to learn minutes later that I had nothing.

Though I was witness to something extraordinary, at that moment I experienced one of the greatest frustrations of my entire career. My audio tape got jammed in the recorder and I lost everything I had recorded. Though the two other reporters in the room at the time offered me some of what they recorded, there was no way to replicate my emotional narrative.
Before the funeral in Atlanta, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, agreed to lead a march through Memphis in support of the sanitation workers. The police department set rules for journalists covering the march. All of us reporters thought the rules were too restrictive and a meeting was requested with the Police Director. I was selected as a pool representative to join two Tennessee reporters to meet with him. He threatened to arrest any reporter who failed to abide by his rules. I appealed for reasonable access to the line of march with assurances that we would not approach Mrs. King. Finally, he relented and said he would ease the terms for coverage if they were approved by Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin. Rustin gave his okay, but on the day of the march the deal was not honored and I was threatened with arrest if I failed to follow directives by the police. Days later I was told the word was out that if another outspoken reporter and I “got in the way,” we were “to be taken care of.” But I never got in the way. As luck had it, I found a spot beneath a VIP stand that had a single red phone. It was right in front of the line of march. I was the only one there so I checked and found there was a dial tone. It became my feed point for live updates. Later, when a few dignitaries at the stand discovered the phone, they asked me for permission to use it.

Arriving in Atlanta to report on the funeral, I got into a taxi with a Black driver who began talking about what an inspiration Dr. King was to him. He was overwhelmed when he learned that I had actually met and spoken to the fallen civil rights leader. When we arrived at my hotel, he refused to take money from me. He said he was so pleased to meet someone who met and spoke to Dr. King. He began to cry and through the tears, muttered, “I loved him.”