Witness to Martin Luther King’s Assassination Breaks Silence

Mary Ellen Ford watched the aftermath of the shooting at the Lorraine motel.

martin luther king
Civil rights leader Andrew Young (L) and others standing on balcony of Lorraine motel pointing in direction of assailant after assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is lying at their feet. (Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

For almost fifty years, no one knew what Mary Ellen Ford, who is referred to in police records as Witness #43, had seen on April 4, 1968.

At the time, Ford was a 21-year-old waitress and cook a the famed Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would stay at her establishment while taking part in the civil rights protests that were sweeping the South. Ford was at the motel at the time King was assassinated, but she never spoke of what she saw — it wasn’t until five ago that even her brother learned of her account.

On Tuesday, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, however, Ford opened up on the Today show about the night that changed her life.

Ford is actually pictured in a famous photo taken after the shooting. She is wearing white, with her right arm folded across her waist as she and other hotel workers wait for an ambulance to arrive. “I never even talked about it, because I do — I get so emotional,” she told NBC’s Craig Melvin.

Ford was cooking in the kitchen when she heard a loud burst ring out, that she thought at first was firecrackers. She ran outside to check on the commotion and saw Dr. King laying on the balcony. She could hear people yelling out, “They shot Dr. King! They shot Dr. King!”

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