At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, Mary Ellen Ford was cooking in the kitchen of Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee when she heard a gunshot.
She thought the loud burst was from people who were shooting off firecrackers but she was mistaken. Dr Martin Luther King Jr., the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement had just been shot.
“We all ran outside to see what was going on and he was laying on the balcony,” Ford said of King. “And I’m standing there. I’m just dumbfounded, you know? Just shocked.”
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“Like, what just happened, you know? This don’t happen here. And — this not OK,” she added, getting emotional at the thought.
Until the eve of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the civil rights icon, Ford had been silent about what she witnessed that day, apart from telling a few family members.
Identified as Witness No.43 by police officers, Ford said the unfortunate incident forever changed her life.
She was 21 when the incident occurred and was then working for Walter and Loree Bailey, owners of the Lorraine Motel, that was then seen as a safe place for blacks, especially prominent people such as Aretha Franklin and B.B. King to stay in the segregated South.
King had then arrived at Memphis to address a strike by the city’s sanitation workers.
“Mr. Bailey [motel owner] would be running around, ‘Get this room straightened up because Dr. King is coming!’ He just wanted to make sure everything was perfect,” Ford recollected in an interview with today.com.
She added that she would then catch glimpses of King as he trooped in and out of the motel, particularly, his room.
She was even tasked at one point to deliver hamburgers to him and other civil rights leaders who used the motel room as a de facto headquarters.
“When I took the tray in, I set it on the table,” Ford recalled. “And like I say, he was laying on the bed … smoking a cigarette, because he smoked.”
Then the unfortunate happened; the assassination of King that was greeted with shock across the country.
A lone gunman, who was later identified as James Earl Ray, shot King as he stood on the motel’s second-floor balcony.
According to Ford, the moment was a blur, and she could hear people screaming out: “They shot Dr. King! They shot Dr. King!”
Phone calls began pouring into the motel as the news spread, Ford added.
“Even the payphone on the outside, they were calling on that,” she said.
“‘Did Dr. King get shot? Did Dr. King get shot?'”
King later died at the hospital. Ray escaped but was captured two months later in the United Kingdom. He would later die in prison in 1998.
Ford recollects that after the assassination, she stayed at the motel under lockdown for three days while police investigated the scene.
She later stayed silent for the next five decades about what she saw while other witnesses shared their stories.
Her own brother didn’t even know that she was in a widely distributed photograph showing the scene until a few years ago.
Ford said she kept all these because talking about her experience got her emotional.
The Lorraine Motel currently houses the National Civil Rights Museum and Ford has since moved to Lansing, Michigan, and has raised a family.
Born in 1929, Martin Luther King Jr., an American Baptist minister was the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 through to 1968.
King had in the year in which he died expressed worry over the slow pace of civil rights in America and the rise in criticism from other African-American leaders.
He had embarked on a series of demonstrations and gone through jail, apart from being threatened with death.
He had made plans for another march on Washington to revive his movement and bring attention to scores of issues before he passed away.
On April 3, he gave his final and what proved to be a prophetic speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he told supporters at the Mason Temple in Memphis, “I’ve seen the promised land. 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.”
The next day, he died.