February 10, 2012

The Day Martin Luther King Died: Rarely Seen Photos Captured on the Night MLK Was Assassinated at the Lorraine Motel

He is one of the most celebrated figures in modern history, whose murder sent shock waves through American society. But these extraordinary photos documenting the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King had until now.

On April 4, 1968, LIFE photographer Henry Groskinsky and writer Mike Silva, on assignment in Alabama, learned that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The two men jumped into their car, raced the 200 miles to the scene of the assassination, and there — to their astonishment — found that they had unfettered access to the motel’s grounds; to nearby abandoned buildings from which the fatal rifle shot likely came; to Dr. King’s motel room; and to the bleak, blood-stained balcony where the civil rights leader fell, mortally wounded, hours earlier.

“I was astonished by how desolate it all was,” Groskinsky told LIFE. “Then again, everyone probably thought that the person who shot Dr. King might still be out there somewhere.”

For reasons that have been lost in the intervening decades, Groskinsky’s photographs from that eerily quiet night in Memphis — taken at the site, and on the very day, of one of the signal events of the 20th century — were not published in LIFE magazine, and the story behind them was not told. Until now in January 2012.

Will D. Campbell, alone on the Lorraine Motel balcony, gazes out into the night. "This picture was probably made as soon as we got there," Groskinsky told LIFE. "When I saw him standing there, alone, I thought it looked as if he was just asking himself, My God, what has happened here?"

The Lorraine Motel photographed in the hours after Dr. King's assassination, April 4, 1968.

Outside of room 306, Theatrice Bailey, the brother of the Lorraine Motel's owner, cleans blood from the balcony. "There was no friction with the people there at the Lorraine," Groskinsky recalled, "even though here was this white man with a camera on the scene."

Theatrice Bailey attempts to clean blood from the balcony, hours after the 6 PM shooting of Dr. King. "I don't know if there were official people around taking notes and pictures and things like that," Groskinsky told LIFE. "Nobody was there when we were there. But the fact that the blood was still on the floor, and this man was actually putting it in a jar ... well, when you see a picture like that, God, it feels invasive."

The back of a photograph taken by LIFE photographer Henry Groskinsky on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tenn.

The building on the left is the abandoned building from which Groskinsky took several of his photographs on the night of April 4. "It was a little scary crawling into the building, because who knew who was going to be there? Who doesn't want you to be there? The atmosphere was very dark, very creepy."

Colleagues gather on the balcony outside the Lorraine Motel's room 306, just a few feet from where Dr. King was shot, April 4, 1968.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s neatly packed, monogrammed briefcase in his room at the Lorraine Motel, April 4, 1968 — with his brush, his pajamas, a can of shaving cream and his book, Strength to Love, visible in the pocket.

Stunned, silent members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Dr. King's room at the Lorraine Motel, April 4, 1968, including Andrew Young (far left, under table lamp) and civil rights leader and Dr. King's colleague, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, in the middle on the far bed. "I was very discreet," Groskinsky recalled. "I shot just enough to document what was going on. There, almost in the center of the picture, in the mirror, you can see my reflection. I took a couple of pictures and just kind of backed off."

Ralph Abernathy and Will D. Campbell, a long-time friend and civil rights activist, embrace in Dr. King's room. "I was documenting a momentous event, and I thought that at any time I was going to be asked to leave, so I did what I could as quickly as I could."

A photo taken through tree branches by Henry Groskinsky from a derelict building across the street from the Lorraine Motel, April 4, 1968, very close to where the shot that killed Dr. King likely came from.

An airplane dispatched by the U.S. government to retrieve Dr. King's body and return it to Atlanta, Ga., waits on the tarmac in Memphis, Tenn., the day after MLK's assassination. "Here we were, two white guys in the Deep South right after the murder of the preeminent leader of the black community — voyeurs, in a sense," Groskinsky told LIFE. "We were apprehensive about it. But when we got there, there were no big problems for us."

(Photos by Henry Groskinsky—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)


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