Americans remembered Martin Luther King’s dream of social justice on the 40th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s assassination today.
The 39-year-old civil rights leader was gunned down at around 6pm local time as he stood on a balcony of the Lorraine motel in Memphis while trying to mediate a strike on April 4, 1968.
Dr King, who delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the steps of Washington’s Lincoln memorial in front of 200,000 civil rights activists in 1963, was hit by one bullet and died in hospital, triggering race riots in dozens of US cities.
In London, a special service at Westminster Abbey, which will be attended by Dr King’s former aide Dr Elbert Ransom Jr, the American Ambassador Robert Tuttle, and Skills Minister David Lammy, will mark the anniversary.
In the US, presidential candidates John McCain and Hillary Clinton were travelling to Memphis to mark the occasion later today.
Republican Mr McCain described Dr King as “a great American taken from us all too soon”.
“Dr King stirred the conscience of our nation to ensure that the self-evident truths of human freedom held true for all Americans,” he said.
“The power of his work and vision was not ended 40 years ago in Memphis. Across the world, men and women are living Dr King’s dream as they strive to extend the blessings of human liberty and human rights to all.”
Mrs Clinton said: “Dr King challenged all of us to stay awake during the great civil rights revolution that was sweeping our country.
“Today, in 2008, there is still a need for us to remain awake, stay focused and work together to address the challenges we face.”
Aides to Barack Obama, who would be the first African American US president if elected, said he would not be in Memphis for the anniversary.
Thousands of people are expected to converge on the motel site to lay wreaths and pay their respects.
Dr King’s son, Martin Luther King III, and civil rights campaigner Reverend Al Sharpton will lead a “recommitment march” through the city, highlighting Dr King’s ideals of social justice, which will be followed by an evening candle-lit vigil.
Forums, exhibits and other events, many organised by the National Civil Rights Museum which now stands on the site of the motel, will also take place.
Last night, on the eve of the anniversary, leaders of the US Senate and House of Representatives paid tribute to Dr King’s memory in a series of speeches on Capitol Hill.
Born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr King was a Baptist minister who became a civil rights activist early in his career.
He led the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, and his work led to the 1963 march on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech on August 28, 1963.
The speech, in which he spoke of his desire for a future where blacks and whites among others would happily co-exist as equals, helped raise public awareness of the civil rights movement.
He is widely believed to be one of the greatest speakers in US history, was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and was awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously.
Martin Luther King Day was established as a national holiday in the US in 1986.
Dr King’s campaign to end segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other non-violent means inspired millions of others and had far-reaching consequences even after his assassination 40 years ago.
James Earl Ray, who confessed to the murder during his trial, was arrested at Heathrow Airport in June 1968 after trying to use a forged passport and held in Wandsworth Prison, South London, while he awaited extradition to the US.
He initially admitted the murder but later retracted the confession and his insistence of his innocence has since been backed by King’s own family.
But prosecutors said Ray fired the fatal shot from the bathroom of a nearby hotel, using a hunting rifle, and he was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
He died aged 70 in a Memphis hospital of liver failure from cirrhosis in 1998, without winning his release.
Records from Ray’s time in Wandsworth, released in March 2001, showed US authorities feared he would be killed in prison.
They also revealed Ray told prison guards he blamed “Black Moslem” groups and King’s own supporters for the assassination.