April 4, 1968 – Reports and Reactions to the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot outside a Memphis hotel on April 4, 1968. As with the assassination of President Kennedy five years earlier, journalists and reporters assembled the facts as quickly as they could, scrambling to break updates to a horrified public. The reporters working for the Westinghouse News Bureau (also known as “Group W”) in Washington, D.C. were among them.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to a crowd in Memphis during the AFSCME Local 1733 sanitation workers’ strike in March, 1968.  Photograph by Ernest Withers.

At the Library of American Broadcasting, the Westinghouse Tape Morgue is one of the most unique audiovisual collections in the archives. Spanning the 1960s and 70s, these 7” reel-to-reel magnetic tapes contain thousands of voice cuts and interviews from members of every branch of the federal government, as well as political leaders and activists of the era. This raw material was a vital source for the network’s news broadcasts.

A selection of radio news coverage from April 4, 1968 tapes illustrate how the day’s reports continuously developed with additional details about the circumstances of the assassination. One of them reveals a more behind-the-scenes glimpse into the arduous and frustrating process of trying to track down a story.

Listen to the radio clips

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Mrs. Coretta Scott King leads the Memphis march fulfilling her husband’s pledge to come back to help the striking sanitation workers, April 13, 1968.  Photograph by Richard Copley.

As the news of King’s assassination carried around the nation and the world, we see a reaction to it in materials from the AFL-CIO Archive.  At the University of Maryland, records of the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department are open to researchers.  These records include some files on Martin Luther King, Jr. both before and after King’s assassination in 1968.

Labor unions from the U.S. and around the world sent multiple telegrams to AFL-CIO President George Meany expressing sympathy and shock in the days after King’s death.  These labor unions included the Ghana Trades Union Congress, Building Service Employees International Union, Local 102, Local 80-A of United Packinghouse, Food and Allied Workers, Cairo ICATU, Granada General Workers Union, Organización Regional Inter-Americana de Trabajadores (ORIT), Norwegian Federation of Trade Unions, Negro American Labor Council, I.U.E. Local 431, UAW Local 1173, Joint Board Fur Leather and Machine Workers Unions, and Furriers Joint Council/New York City Central Labor Council.  This demonstrates the influence and reach of the AFL-CIO and King, both nationally and internationally.

Visit the Civil Rights section of our Labor Exhibit in Hornbake Library and online.

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AFL-CIO press release announcing George Meany’s statement about death of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 5, 1968

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Telegram from Norwegian Federation of Trade Unions responding to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 6, 1968

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Telegram from Ghana Trades Union Congress responding to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 6, 1968

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Civil Rights leaders often engaged with the AFL-CIO to discuss current events related to civil rights and labor.  They recognized that presenting a unified front would yield gains for all working people.

Labor’s response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, TN helped to solidify the bond between labor and civil rights, and served as a foundation for future joint endeavors such as Operation Big Vote and legislation for a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.


Jen Eidson is a Processing Archivist for Special Collections in the University of Maryland Libraries.

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