Fact check: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died due to gunshot wound

·7 min read

The claim: Martin Luther King Jr. was 'killed by his doctor,' not a gunman

More than half a century after his death, conspiracy theories about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination continue to circulate online.

"Martin Luther King was Killed by his DOCTOR NOT the BULLET," reads text in a Facebook post published Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The post, which includes a years-old clip from a broadcast from the Russian television network RT, accumulated more than 500 shares within two days. The video racked up more than 11,000 views.

The clip features audio from William Pepper, who is identified as a lawyer for the King family.

"He wasn't killed from the bullet that hit him on the balcony," Pepper says. "He was taken to the St. Joseph's Hospital and he was killed in the emergency room of St. Joseph's Hospital by the chief of neurosurgery, Dr. Breen Bland."

Citing the purported eyewitness account of a surgical nurse named Lula Mae Shelby, Pepper goes on to claim Bland suffocated King with a pillow.

More: King family rallies in Arizona for voting bills for MLK Day

"That's how Martin King died – that's how he was really assassinated," he says in the clip.

Versions of that claim have circulated online for years. But the revisionist history is not based in fact.

"King was murdered by a gunman," Jason Sokol, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire and author of the book "The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.," said in an email. "There is no evidence whatsoever to support the other stories you mention."

USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook user who shared the claim, as well as the Instagram user they cite as evidence, for comment.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place. From left are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King and Ralph Abernathy.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place. From left are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King and Ralph Abernathy.

Gunshot wound killed King

In 1979, Congress published the most authoritative report on King's death. It found he died from a gunshot wound.

The civil rights leader was shot shortly after 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968, according to the House Select Committee on Assassinations' report. He was standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. About an hour later, he was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital.

The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King's close friend and confidant, was with King when he was shot and during his time in the emergency room at St. Joseph's. The Rev. Bernard Lee, another member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also accompanied them.

Abernathy made it clear in his autobiography that King died in the hospital after being shot.

Special access for subscribers! Click here to sign up for our fact-check text chat

"I walked over with Bernard to where he was lying, his breathing nothing more than prolonged shudders," Abernathy wrote in "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down." "The breaths came farther and farther apart. Then, a pause came that lengthened until I knew it would never end."

Hampton Sides, author of "Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History," told USA TODAY the notion that King somehow survived the shooting is not supported by evidence.

"The trauma from the gunshot wound was quite simply unsurvivable," Sides, whose book chronicles the aftermath of King's assassination, said in an email. "Dr. Frederick Gioia, the neurosurgeon who examined King while he was still alive, noted that the assassin’s bullet had damaged King’s jugular vein and windpipe, and then had driven down into the spinal cord, severing it completely."

After conducting an autopsy, Dr. Jerry T. Francisco, then medical examiner of Shelby County, concluded King's death was the result of a "gunshot wound to the chin and neck with a total transaction of the lower cervical and upper thoracic spinal cord and other structures of the neck," according to the House committee's report.

People on the balcony of Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, point in direction of gunshots April 4, 1968, after the assassination of civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who is lying at their feet.
People on the balcony of Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, point in direction of gunshots April 4, 1968, after the assassination of civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who is lying at their feet.

At the time, some critics raised questions about the thoroughness of the autopsy, according to the report. But there's no basis for the Facebook post's alternative theory of King's death.

"To say that a neurosurgeon came into the ER with a pillow and suffocated King is nothing but slander and a wholesale invention concocted years later by a discredited conspiracy buff – Pepper, who calls himself a 'doctor,' and who traffics in sensational tales," Sides said.

Pepper is an attorney who represented James Earl Ray, a convicted armed robber and escaped prison inmate, during the tail-end of his trial for King's murder.

In March 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of King. He recanted three days later but was never able to formally withdraw his guilty plea, according to the House committee's report.

Fact check: Claim about Biden quote on MLK assassination, George Floyd death is missing context

Pepper, who has previously promoted conspiracy theories related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, claims King's death was the result of a vast government conspiracy.

In 1999, he represented the King family in a wrongful-death lawsuit. The jury in that trial found that a Memphis cafe owner and "others, including government agencies" were part of a conspiracy to assassinate King.

But in a review of the lawsuit, the Justice Department found no evidence to back up the verdict. (It's important to note that civil cases do not have the same burden of proof as criminal cases.)

"The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. is a tale full of many legitimate mysteries and unanswered questions. The cause of his death is not one of them," Sides said.

USA TODAY reached out to Pepper for comment.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that King was "killed by his doctor," not a gunman. A 1979 congressional report, based in part on the results of an autopsy, found that King died due to a gunshot wound. Eyewitness accounts from those who were with the civil rights leader when he was shot back that up. Biographers say there's no evidence King was smothered in a hospital room.

Our fact-check sources:

Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free app, or electronic newspaper replica here.

Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Martin Luther King Jr. died due to gunshot wound

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting