His powerful orations and dreams of ending racism rallied a nation and joined Americans together like no other man before.
The assassination of the legendary leader sparked fiery riots through some of the United States' largest cities even as the rest of the country mourned. To this day, no one man has been able to replicate King's powerful presence and his ability to galvanize others to act for good.
FORETELL HIS DEMISE
King was in Memphis leading an effort to settle a garbage workers' strike when he ominously appeared to foretell his own demise.
"I've seen the promised land," King said in a speech at the Mason Temple Church the night of April 3. "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
Less than a day later, his premonition became a tragic reality.
At 6:01 p.m., a sniper's bullet fired from a nearby flophouse struck the 39-year-old minister in the neck as he and several associates stood on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
BLEW HIS HEART OUT
- Here are 10 of the most famous assassinations that changed the course of history
- A Texas Man ‘Wanted to Play Video Games’ in Peace. So, He Crushed His Girlfriend's Wailing Newborn Daughter's Skull.
- A California Woman Became 'Possessed' After Smoking Pot. Then, She Stabbed Her Boyfriend and Dog to Death.
"There was this ringing shot that hit him in the neck and went down and apparently blew his heart out. He never knew he was hit," says Jesse Jackson, who was on the balcony with King.
King was rushed to a hospital, but the damage couldn't be repaired. He was pronounced dead an hour later.
Meanwhile, lawmen launched a manhunt for the gunman.
Witnesses spotted a man fleeing the area minutes after the assassination. The FBI soon announced there was a variety of evidence tying two-bit criminal James Earl Ray to the horrific crime.
In addition, eyewitnesses placed him at the scene and his fingerprints were found on the rifle and scope.
Ray, 40, spent two months on the lam before lawmen caught up with him at London's Heathrow Airport. He was hauled back to Memphis to face justice.
But within days, he recanted his guilty plea and demanded a new trial - hinting he was part of a broader conspiracy. In June 1977, he and six other cons escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. They were all recaptured after three days. Some thought the inmates made their getaway with outside help.
For years before he died in prison of liver failure on April 23, 1998, at age 70, Ray argued he was framed by a mystery man named Raoul.
Amazingly, he found an unlikely ally in King's own family, who offered to help his case and shed light on what really happened.
Never miss a story — sign up for the Front Page Detectives newsletter. Be on the scene the moment news breaks.
"I believe you, and my family believes you, and we will do everything in our power to see you prevail," King's son Dexter said to Ray in a 1997 meeting.
But despite incredible pressure to reopen the investigation, no new trial was granted - and questions remain.
"I will never believe that James Earl Ray had the motive, the money and the mobility to have done it himself," says Jackson. "Our government was very involved in setting the stage for, and I think the escape route for, James Earl Ray. A very painful day."
Become a Front Page Detective
Sign up to receive breaking
Front Page Detectives
news and exclusive investigations.