MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Nancy Shipley was working in a news office in Nashville, Tennessee, when the call came 50 years ago. Gene Herrick was in Chicago routing photos to newspapers when his phone rang. Jack Thornell got the call in New Orleans; Kathryn Johnson heard the news in Atlanta.
Together, over the next few days, the four helped The Associated Press inform the world about the stunning news that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Shipley broke into AP’s national wire with the original bulletin that King had been shot, and Herrick later stood in the sniper’s perch to witness the killer’s view of the hotel balcony where King was slain. Thornell made a heart-wrenching photo of King’s widow and children standing beside his open coffin; Johnson spent days inside the King family home in Atlanta and greeted another famous widow, Jackie Kennedy, at the door.
Here are the stories of four people who helped shape AP’s coverage of King’s death in the minutes and days after that lone shot rang out in Memphis:
Nancy Shipley was alone writing stories for radio and television stations the evening of April 4, 1968, when AP reporter Doug Stone called from Memphis with word King had been shot.
News flowed slowly before the internet age; teletype machines clacked out stories at 66 words per minute. Shipley first filed that news by ordering a machine operator to break into the AP’s main national news wire; she later got confirmation from Stone and another AP reporter, Jay Bowles, that King had died.
“It was frantic in those first few minutes between the confirmation of the shooting and then the confirmation of the death,” Shipley, now-retired, said during a recent interview in her home in Dayton, Tennessee.
With the initial news out, other reporters returned to the office from dinner and jumped in to help. Shipley took a break.
“I remember standing up and going into the ladies’ room and just melting into tears,” she said. “It was such a sad, stunning moment.”
Shipley, 75, went on to become a broadcast executive for AP before becoming only the second woman to be named chief of bureau for the news agency. She retired in 1996.
A sniper’s perch
AP photo editor Gene Herrick found a commercial flight from Chicago to Memphis, but still had to talk the pilot into landing — the airport was closed because of martial law.
The next morning, Herrick stood outside the low-rent boarding house where police said James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot as King stood on the balcony of the nearby Lorraine Motel. Herrick ascended creaky wooden stairs to the second floor, where Ray had been.
“It was kind of ominous,” Herrick, 91 and retired, said recently in an interview at his home in Rocky Mount, Virginia. “And there was, you know, little old rooms there and one bathroom for the whole floor. And the killer had stood in the bath tub and looked out the window right next to the tub. And that was his view of Martin Luther King on the balcony.”
Herrick covered the Korean War, and he covered presidents. He also covered King during the early days of his civil rights leadership in Montgomery, Alabama. That memory of standing in the killer’s perch has stuck with him.
“It was very strange … to sit there and just climb into the bath tub and put my arms on the windowsill just like the killer,” he said.
A grieving family
Pointing his camera toward the front of a chapel adorned with flowers, Jack Thornell pressed the shutter. His photograph showed the pain of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination like few others: It was a scene of his widow and children viewing the body of the slain minister in an open wooden casket.
It wasn’t Thornell’s first landmark photo of the civil rights era. He’d already won a Pulitzer Prize for a photo made nearly two years earlier of activist James Meredith screaming in pain after he was shot while making a one-person march in Mississippi.
But the circumstances of the King photo were different.
Thornell, 78, had covered the sanitation worker’s strike that preceded King’s assassination in Memphis, and he was later told to rush from New Orleans to Atlanta after the killing. His first assignment was to photograph the family viewing King’s body at the Spelman College’s Sisters Chapel, and he was late.
Thornell said he dashed around another photographer and climbed atop a pew, clambering toward the casket by stepping over pew after pew. He made that picture of the family but then felt all eyes upon him.
“I was shaken when I left there. I had my eyes on the floor because I knew everyone was looking at me for my despicable behavior,” Thornell said in a recent interview at his home in Kenner, Louisiana. “But I didn’t leave without the picture.”
“Let Kathryn in”
Kathryn Johnson was a young AP reporter in Atlanta when the civil rights movement began, and she wound up on the civil rights beat partly because older, male reporters didn’t want it.
Johnson had been covering King and his wife for years by the time she stood outside their home with other journalists on a rainy night in Atlanta following the assassination. From inside, widow Coretta Scott King called out.
“Let Kathryn in,” she said. That invitation began a remarkable period in which AP was alone in having a reporter with the King family for five days following the killing.
Johnson called in details for the funeral plans. She watched TV coverage of the assassination with the family, acted as a chauffeur for King’s grieving father, cooked breakfast for the family and then greeted former first lady Jackie Kennedy when she arrived on the morning of the funeral.
“I had an apron on and a towel over my hand and she made a beeline for me and she shook my hand to my astonishment,” Johnson said in a recent interview in Atlanta. “To this day, I think she thought I was the King’s white maid. I was the only white person in the house.”
Like many white Southerners of her time, Johnson grew up knowing blacks mainly as people who worked around the homes of whites as cooks or yard help. Her work changed that; she came to see the effects of racism and segregation and the nobility of the cause of freedom.
“It was a life-transforming experience for me,” Johnson said.