FACT CHECK: Viral Instagram Post Claims MLK Didn’t Die From A Gunshot

Elias Atienza | Fact Check Reporter

An Instagram post with more than 55,000 likes claims civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. died not from being shot, but rather from being smothered at the hospital.

“Tell your kids to tell their teacher to talk about this next month during Black History Month when they bring up his name,” urges the post.

Verdict: False

A congressional report determined that King died from a single gunshot wound. The Justice Department found no evidence that the government conspired to kill King in a review of the 1999 lawsuit. The image in the post was taken roughly ten years before King’s assassination.

Fact Check:

Rapper Montana of 300 posted a meme Jan. 16 that falsely claims King died in the hospital from being smothered. The post includes a photo of King lying in what appears to be a hospital bed. (RELATED: Does Alabama Celebrate Robert E. Lee And Martin Luther King Jr. On The Same Day?)

“Did y’all know that MLK didn’t die from the bullet that hit him? He was killed (smothered) in the hospital,” reads the meme. “Also in 1999 the US government was found guilty in a court of law of conspiring to kill him but was silenced by the media… YALL NOT READY FOR THIS TALK THO (sic).”

A 1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations report found King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, after being shot around 6 p.m. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He died roughly an hour later at St. Joseph Hospital from 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 report.

The image in the Instagram post does not depict King in the hospital after being shot that day. The photo, taken by The Associated Press in 1958, actually shows King recovering from an operation to remove a steel letter opener that a mentally unstable woman stabbed in his chest ten years earlier, according to the caption.

As evidence that King died at the hospital in a government plot, the post cites a 1999 wrongful death lawsuit brought against Memphis cafe owner Loyd Jowers by lawyer William Peppers on behalf of the King family. Jowers had claimed he hired someone other than James Earl Ray, the man who originally pleaded guilty to assassinating King but later recanted his confession, to kill King.

The jury ruled in that civil suit that Jowers and “others, including governmental agencies” conspired to assassinate King. (RELATED: Did MLK Say, ‘I Will Not Rejoice In The Death Of One, Not Even An Enemy’?)

However, the Justice Department found no evidence to back up the verdict in a 2000 review of the lawsuit. Civil suits only need a “preponderance of evidence” to prove the case, which lower standard than the burden of “beyond reasonable doubt” in criminal cases, according to Cornell Law School.

“Most of the witnesses and writings offered to support the various government-directed conspiracy claims relied exclusively on secondhand and thirdhand hearsay and speculation,” wrote the Justice Department. “Additionally, none of these allegations were ever linked together.”

The New York Times, CNN and other media outlets covered the 1999 trial.

Elias Atienza

Fact Check Reporter
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