The Lone Journalist on the Scene When King Was Shot and the Newsroom He Rallied

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The New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell and Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis shortly before the assassination on April 4, 1968. Credit Barney Sellers/Memphis Commercial Appeal

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Earl Caldwell wrote history on the night of April 4, 1968, when he reported firsthand on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. for The New York Times. But he made history right before that, when he became the first black reporter The Times had assigned to follow the civil rights leader.

That night, Caldwell spearheaded the dozens of reporters, editors and photographers hastily assembled for the story — an additional first for a black journalist and, in a larger sense, another result of the campaign for greater black inclusion in American life that King had come to personify over the previous 13 years.

The milestones in King’s career — the Montgomery bus boycott, the protests in Birmingham, the marches on Washington and from Selma to Montgomery — had always been the province of white correspondents, principally native Southerners (Claude Sitton, Roy Reed and Gene Roberts, among them) steeped in racial matters for whom the major stops on the civil rights itinerary represented home turf. But that changed when King, in Memphis to support striking local sanitation workers, and Caldwell, there to follow him around, each checked into the Lorraine Motel on April 3.

Also always left to white reporters was the task of writing, and periodically updating, King’s obituary. The paper first prepared one in 1960, when King was all of 31 years old. Only the dateline and the lead paragraph, detailing the circumstances of his demise, were omitted. In this sense, The Times and King were congruent long before April 4, 1968: Each had anticipated his early, and violent, death. — David Margolick

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Earl Caldwell (standing next to police officer) on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel as Martin Luther King Jr. lies mortally wounded. Caldwell’s room was one floor below. He raced up after he heard the shot. Credit Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

Here’s a look at what happened inside and outside our newsroom that night, and in the days after — including a first-person account from Earl Caldwell, who is currently an assistant professor at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University in Hampton, Va. He declined to comment for this piece. The longer article from which it is excerpted, titled “7 Days That Shook the World and The Times” — written, without a byline, for an internal April 1968 Times publication, Times Talk — began with our coverage of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s surprise announcement, that same week, that he would not seek re-election.

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The tumult that shook the nation early in April kept Times crews at high boil for a full week. The president announced he would not run, Martin Luther King was assassinated and violence erupted across the country. Even the oldest hands on the paper could recall no period to equal it.

At 7:10 on Thursday evening, April 4, [the national news editor Claude] Sitton’s phone rang. It was Earl Caldwell, calling from Memphis. “King’s been shot,” he reported breathlessly.

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The national news editor Claude Sitton. Credit Eddie Hausner/The New York Times

“Who?” Sitton asked.

“King. Martin Luther King.”

“How serious?” Sitton asked.

Caldwell didn’t know, but told Sitton, “It looks bad.”

He had gone to Memphis the day before to cover Dr. King’s march for the striking sanitation men. Here’s his account of what happened, as written for Times Talk.

It didn’t have the sharp crack of a rifle shot. It was more of a blast, like a giant firecracker or a bomb.

ln Memphis, it was near 6 p.m. The Huntley-Brinkley news show had just finished on TV. My room, No. 215, was on the ground floor of the motel, just under the balcony where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was standing and talking when the shot rang out. The phone service at the motel was poor and I’d been stalking about the room, waiting for a line to phone New York an insert on the story I’d been working on.

It was warm in the room and I cracked the door and then, restless and angry that I was missing the deadline because of the phone, I took off my shoes and trousers. A short while earlier a coke bottle had fallen off the balcony and broken just outside the window of my room. For some reason I had been jumpy when the bottle fell. I ran to the door, thinking it was a shot or something.

Then came the blast. Before any commotion or before I heard anything I knew that something was wrong and went for the door that was still partially opened.

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The reporter Earl Caldwell.

I saw people jumping around in the courtyard in front of the balcony. My first thought was that someone had set off a firecracker. “Man, what a lousy joke,” I thought at first. Then the events began to close in.

This car, it raced across the black-top yard [which was also a parking lot] toward my room and then stopped and went back and then lurched forward again. It stopped again and the Negro man sitting inside at the wheel was rocking back and forth with his hands at his head now and screaming “Oh no, oh no, oh no.” I yelled at him: “What’s the matter? What’s the matter? What’s going on?” But he never answered or before he could someone else was yelling: “They shot him. They shot him.”

I dashed out into the lot but a few steps outside the door I remembered my trousers. I don’t know why but I knew it was Dr. King. I started back for my pants but stopped and ran out again. Then back into the room where I grabbed my pants and slipped on my shoes without bothering to lace them up. On the way out I grabbed a stack of copy paper, a pen and my raincoat. Later, I wondered why the raincoat but as it turned out, it was a good move. When I ran out the last time, I forgot my room key and locked myself out into what was to become a very chilly night.

I ran into the lot and remember seeing James Bevel, a member of Dr. King’s executive staff crouching near the balcony. I ran closer and then I got down, too, but I could see Dr. King lying up there on the balcony. I jumped up and then back down and then up and down again as the others did too. It dawned on me at some point that I was doing this along with everyone else because there might be another shot.

And then, someone was on the balcony. It was Abernathy, the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, Dr. King’s close friend and long-time aide. Then someone else was on the balcony and I ran over to the stairs and went up too. Abernathy was holding Dr. King about his head and leaning over him as though he were trying to talk with him. The blood. The wound was as big as your fist. His eyes. They were open but they had such a strange look. Eyes that were not seeing anything. I thought he was unconscious.

“Write. Write, write down everything you see,” I thought. I began to jot down on paper who was there, what they were doing, time, what they were saying. “Get it all down, get it all down,” and then a second thought: phone. Call the office, call the office I kept thinking. I hustled down the stairs and started for my room but about half-way I remembered that the phones were busy. I remembered one at the other end of the motel and I started to run in that direction.

Suddenly there were all of these police with shotguns and unholstered pistols and they seemed to be coming from across the street, from the direction where the shot had been fired. I remember a cop coming up to me grabbing my arm and asking which way did the shot come from. “Across the street, I think. Over there. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Again I remembered the phone and started to run in that direction. Change. A dime. I had two nickels in my pocket. I felt out of breath but I remember methodically calling the operator. “I’d like to make a credit card call to New York … area code 212-556-7356. Martha.” Martha answered. “Martha, I’d like to speak to Claude, it’s an emergency. Claude answered quickly but when he did I couldn’t talk. All of a sudden, I was out of breath. Finally I blurted it out. “King’s been shot.”

Sitton told him to get further details and call back. He hung up, called over to [the metropolitan editor Arthur] Gelb, “King’s been shot,” and hurried to the bull pen. It was a full 10 minutes before the wire services moved the bulletins about the shooting. And even then no one knew how serious it was.

The metropolitan staff was winding up an exhausting day which had seen the installation of Archbishop Cooke and the president’s visit to New York. The last stories were crossing the desk. Gelb immediately collared Peter Kihss, told him to be prepared to write a first-edition story on Dr. King if Caldwell was unable to file. Tony Lukas was finishing a story about the president’s day in New York. He was instructed to go at once to Memphis. Martha Moraghan, national desk secretary, had called American Airlines, learned there was a 7:50 plane out of La Guardia Airport. Sitton had cajoled an airline executive into holding it until Lukas could get there.

Murray Schumach, who had just finished a piece on the city’s security arrangements during the president’s visit, was ready to go home. Gelb stopped him. Murray had written an advance obit on Dr. King a year and a half ago. It was in type in the composing room. Gelb asked him to update and revise it.

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The metropolitan editor Arthur Gelb.

At 7:30 (New York time; it was an hour earlier in Memphis) Caldwell called back. He told Sitton that King had been taken to a hospital, but he didn’t know which one. Gelb put four rewrite men on the phones to try and find out. They called Memphis hospitals, police, newspapers. A few minutes after 8, Mike Kaufman broke off a phone conversation to call to Gelb: “King died at 6:12. I have it from The Memphis Commercial Appeal.”

In the bull pen Assistant Managing Editor Ted Bernstein and News Editor Lew Jordan had laid out the front page by 6:30. Max Frankel’s piece on the president’s upcoming trip to Hawaii was to lead the paper. The installation of the archbishop was to be the off-lead, illustrated with two four-column cuts of the service. They quickly prepared an alternate dummy. The Johnson story was moved to column five and space was made for a three-column head on the King story. A two-column cut of Dr. King was rushed through photoengraving.

Kihss was taking Caldwell’s eyewitness account on the phone, skillfully weaving into the story all the vital information he had assembled in the few minutes before Sitton switched Caldwell’s second call to him. Together they put together a two-column story, full of vivid dialogue and descriptions of the scene on the motel balcony. A new lead from Frankel updated his Johnson story to include the president’s decision to postpone his trip. [The editorial page editor] John Oakes was dining in a restaurant when the death flash came. Ralph Chodes, who makes up the editorial page, called him. Oakes wrote a few sentences on the back of a menu and called it in for the first edition. After dinner, at home, he expanded it for later editions.

Make-up Editor Dave Lidman and his assistants had rearranged inside pages to make room for the Caldwell story and for Schumach’s four-column obit. (Next day readers wondered how The Times could be on the street so quickly with a full-length obituary. Advance obits of important people are kept in type for just such emergencies.)

Sitton had been on the phone since the first word of the shooting came in. He called B.D. Ayres on the night desk in the Washington bureau and asked him to find out what the Justice Department was doing about the shooting. He alerted his Southern regional correspondents Martin Waldron in Austin, Walter Rugaber in Atlanta, Tony Ripley in Tampa. When word of the death came through, he sent Waldron to Memphis, Ripley to Atlanta to join Rugaber.

Lukas and Waldron met head-on in front of The Memphis Commercial Appeal office about 10 p.m. Lukas had arrived from New York; Waldron from Texas. They tried to call 43rd Street. No calls were allowed out, the operator informed them, unless it was a matter of life or death. “lt is,” Lukas told her. “My editor will kill me if I don’t get through.” It didn’t work. About 11 o’clock, suspecting that the men in Memphis were having trouble getting through, Gelb had Bob McFadden on rewrite call them at the Commercial Appeal. They kept the line open several hours, dictating stuff they had picked up about the situation in Memphis. It was incorporated in a roundup written in the office by Syl Fox.

Anticipating riots but not knowing where they might break out, Sitton reached his Midwest correspondents — Doug Kneeland in Lincoln, Neb., Don Janson in Indianapolis — and got them to Chicago. He wanted them close to a big airport ready to move out quickly wherever they might be needed. As violence flared throughout the week, Kneeland flew to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Kansas City; Janson stayed in Chicago to cover the disturbances there.

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The photographer Don Charles.

Art Gelb held all his men and called in others. He put some on the telephones to get reaction from civil rights and political leaders. He assigned others to background pieces. It was Sunday night [when Johnson unexpectedly announced he would not seek re-election] all over again, only more so. As reports of looting and disturbances came in, Gelb sent men scurrying to trouble spots — Gerry Fraser and John Kifner, accompanied by Photographer Don Charles, to Harlem; Rudy Johnson to Bedford-Stuyvesant; Steve Roberts into Midtown. Tom Johnson took their reports as they called in, put together a front-page story for late editions. Larry Van Gelder rounded up a reaction story. Fraser, Kifner and Charles stayed through the night in Harlem, where the situation worsened after the paper had closed. They assembled good material and pictures for the next day’s paper.

Washington staffers, with an old-fashioned police story on their hands (unlike the calm abstractions of their accustomed beats), worked without let-up on the riots that broke out in the capital on Thursday night and kept the city under curfew through the weekend. Carl Spriggs, a news clerk, went to the heart of the violence Thursday night, got within arm’s length of Stokely Carmichael and got an exclusive report on his inflammatory remarks about guns. All that night and through the weekend he roamed the streets amid the violence, as did John Finney, Ben Welles and Fred Graham. Graham got tear-gassed. Maggie Hunter and Eileen Shanahan pitched in as rewrite men. As one of the few Washington natives in the bureau, Eileen also monitored the police radio and helped out on the geography of the city. Dave Brewster, assistant librarian, did leg work at the police station. Barbara Dubivsky, Sunday department representative; John Sterba, Scotty Reston’s assistant, and Diane Henry, news assistant, manned the telephones as the men called in.

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Men of the 82nd Airborne Division, on riot duty in Washington, read all about it in The New York Times. This photograph, which ran in The Washington Post, was taken by Bernie Boston, a staff photographer. Credit

Bob Phelps pulled things together; Hal Gal, assistant news editor, and Ayres practically never left the desk during the weekend. In a corner of the bureau, Ben Franklin, Middle Atlantic correspondent, wove the material together. Norris Kealey and his wire room crew sent it catapulting to New York, where the national copy desk, with Ray O’Neill and Art Reed in charge, took over.

The late editions of the April 5 Times, under a banner head, carried 15 separate stories relating to Dr. King and eight photographs. Again, advertising was jettisoned to make room for it all. Archbishop Cooke conducted a steady retreat through the night, ended up at the bottom of Page 1. Distribution through the week held to over 1,000,000 copies.

The pressures on the local and national staffs seemed as if they would never let up — disorders, official mourning, the march in Memphis, the funeral in Atlanta. Sitton and Gelb played a complicated chess game with their men, moved them around the country, around the city as events dictated. The Times had a crew of nine in Atlanta on April 9, the day of the funeral, more than most states had representatives. Rugaber and Ripley were joined by Caldwell and Lukas, who came from Memphis, and by Homer Bigart, John Kifner, Ted Fiske, Deirdre Carmody and Don Charles, who flew down from New York.

By the time it was all over, editors, reporters, rewrite men and desk men had the twitches. The general air was “What next?”

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