On Thursday, April 4, 1968, King was staying in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The motel was owned by businessman Walter Bailey and named after his wife. Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a colleague and friend, later told the House Select Committee on Assassinations he and King had stayed in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel so often that it was known as the “King–Abernathy Suite”.
According to biographer Taylor Branch, King’s last words were to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at a planned event. King said, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
King had gone out onto the balcony and was standing near his room when he was struck at 6:01 p.m. by a single .30-06 bullet fired from a Remington Model 760 rifle. The bullet entered through King’s right cheek, breaking his jaw and several vertebrae as it traveled down his spinal cord, severing his jugular vein and major arteries in the process, before lodging in his shoulder. The force of the shot ripped off King’s necktie. King fell violently backward onto the balcony, unconscious.
Shortly after the shot was fired, witnesses saw a man, later believed to be James Earl Ray, fleeing from a rooming house across the street from the Lorraine Motel. Ray had been renting a room there. Police found a package dumped close to the site, which included a rifle and binoculars, both with Ray’s fingerprints. Ray had purchased the rifle under an alias six days earlier. A worldwide manhunt was triggered, which culminated in the arrest of Ray at London’s Heathrow Airport two months later.
At the time, Abernathy heard the shot from inside the motel room and ran to the balcony to find King on the deck, bleeding profusely from the wound in his cheek. Andrew Young, a colleague from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, first believed King was dead, but found he still had a pulse.
King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where doctors opened his chest and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. According to Taylor Branch, his autopsy revealed that despite being aged just 39, his heart was in the condition of a 60-year-old man, which Branch attributed to the stress of his 13 years in the Civil Rights Movement.