This article was originally published April 1, 2008—Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.'s contributions left a lasting impression on the African-American community, rocked the nation and shocked the world.
Many older people can remember where they were the day Dr. King was assassinated, but only a select few can give a firsthand account of what happened on that fateful day 40 years ago.
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The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was on the balcony with King when the shot rang out, shared the details leading up to King’s last moments with BET News.
"I saw him lying on the balcony in a pool of blood and that scene never leaves my mind," Jackson said.
Just prior to his assassination, Dr. King contemplated his role in the civil rights movement. He even considered giving up the fight.
"It was like Jesus saying, 'Let this cup pass from me,' as in maybe I should quit," Jackson said, speaking of King’s inner conflict. "And as Jesus prayed, the disciples slept; some staff members slept that Saturday morning, and then Jesus said, 'Not my will, but thine be done.'"
"King said, 'I don't feel like speaking tonight. I want you Jesse.'" He asked Rev. Anderson Abernathy as well, "'Reverand Abernathy, you speak tonight and I will maybe tomorrow,'" Rev. Jackson continued.
“And finally Rev. Abernathy and I, we went onto the church together. Rev. Abernathy said the people are screaming but they think it’s because Martin is behind us, they're not screaming for us, you know that right? So we went to the back of the church and called him on the pay phone.”
So Dr. King marched on to Mason Temple Church in Memphis and gave what would be his last speech: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
Jackson reflected on what would be one of King’s most famous speeches.
“As he built up, he addressed the issue of fear, his own courage, his own resoluteness to go forward by faith, as it were, so it was a very emotional night, I saw men crying, kind of unusual. Something about that night was kind of, to that extent, special. No notes, just speaking out of his heart and soul, his reflection and his projection,” he said.
Jackson describes the evening of April 4, 1968.
“We were going to sing at the rally that night, after having dinner at Rev. Bill Kyles home. I remember we took a nap, and we came across the courtyard. Bill Kyles came out first; he was about eight steps in front of him.
"He said, 'Jesse, we're on the way to dinner, and you do not have on a tie.' I said, 'Doc, you know the prerequisite for eating is an appetite and not the tie.’ He said, 'You're crazy,' and we laughed."
"He then said to Ben Brash, 'You should play my favorite song tonight, Precious Lord.' Ben said, 'I will,' and I said, 'Doc,' and he raised up and the bullet hit him right there, and he was over really; knocked against the wall, and there he lay bleeding."
News of Dr. Kings' death spread like wildfire. As did his call for justice and equality.
"The word got out…went out in smoke, and so did the nation," Jackson said. "That scene is a very gruesome scene, of course out of that the riots, out of that the Commission Reports, and out of that the '68 Open Housing Act.”
Dr. King dedicated his life to the fight for civil rights. His work helped break barriers that remain broken today.
"Even in his death, he kept changing things," Jackson said. "Even to this day, he's the foremost change agent in this world, 40 years later."
(Photo: ALLEN FREDRICKSON/ REUTERS/LANDOV)