Cleveland clergyman was witness to assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in 1968

Church bishop witnessed the murder of King

CLEVELAND - He has never told the story that resonates in him as loud as the gunshot he heard when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis April 4, 1968.

Especially on Martin Luther King Day and on the anniversary of his death, Bishop J. Delano Ellis of the Pentacostal Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio, reflects on what he saw as he waited for the civil rights leader to come to Ellis' car for the drive to a restaurant.

In 1968, Bishop Ellis was the pastor of a very small congregation in Memphis. To add to his meager income from the church, he drove a taxi cab for the Friendly Cab Company, a taxi service that served the black community of Memphis.

"There were white cab companies and a black cab company because there was no racial mixing in taxi service," said Ellis, as he saw in his bishop's study at the big church building on the Cleveland east side.

Ellis said his cab was often requested because of the way he operated it.

"I kept it clean," he said. "I kept it polished and had mints in the backseat for my passengers."

Ellis added he kept religious readings in the car, also, for those passengers who wanted them.

"I get a call to drive to the Lorraine Motel for a group of passengers," remembered Ellis. He said when he pulled into the parking lot, he figured he would be driving Dr. King or some of his entourage.

"I saw Jesse Jackson and I was smiling because I would be with him," he said.

Ellis said the radio dispatcher at the cab company headquarters called him and told him to wait in the parking lot because his passengers would be coming soon.

"The dispatcher said they knew I was there," he said.

While waiting, Ellis got out of the car and began to clean the windshield.

"That's when I heard this loud backfire noise," Ellis said.

However, what he heard was no automobile's backfire. It was a rifle shot. Ellis' eyes darted in the direction of the noise. Seeing nothing, he looked in the opposite direction. It was there, outside a row of motel room doors, the horrible scene was etched into his eyes and brain. Martin Luther King Jr. was sprawled across the floor outside the second floor set of  rooms.

"I remember his foot was coming through the rail," said Ellis, who then realized King had been shot.

Associates of King were there and they huddled around the fallen leader. There was pandemonian. There came shouts and cries as those men who were so closely associated with Dr. King surrounded his fallen body.

"They were ministering to him; people were over top of him," said Ellis.

"I felt fear; I felt terror; I felt a lot of anger," said Ellis.

He remembers the scene as if it is played in slow motion.

"It couldn't have been much time, but the police were all over the place," said Ellis.

Still in the parking lot, Ellis didn't know what to do. Then he was assaulted, he said.

"It was the police beating me," he said.

When asked if he meant "roughing you up," he responded quickly.

"When I said they beat me, I mean they beat me," said Ellis without hesitation. "They whipped me."

Ellis said immediately officers began to beat him.

"There wasn't a black cop to be seen," said Ellis.   While he was being beaten, he asked why the assault on him.

"One of 'em told me, 'I told you n****** to stay outta here," said Ellis.

All the while other officers had rushed to the second-floor area outside the motel room where King laid.

"And everybody was running up the steps. Blood was on the side of the door," remembered the former cab driver.

Dr. King had suffered a fatal bullet wound to his head.

The police ordered Ellis out of the parking lot, but it took more time for him to leave because so many police cars had blocked the entrance.

He said King's entourage, including Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy and others had pointed to where the sound of the gunfire had come. It was across the way in a dilapidated flophouse, where later evidence was found pointing to James Earl Ray, who was convicted of the assassination.

However, it would be about a month before Ray was tracked down in Great Britain, having fled from the United States and the all-out search for the gunman, whose handprint was found on the murder weapon, which police found stashed outside a store in the neighborhood of the Lorraine Motel.

Nearly 43 years later, Bishop Ellis reflects on the events of that day.

"I cannot go through this holiday without remembering," he said, his voice trailing as he stared off into space as if his mind were still back in 1968.

He recalled how one of his parishoners in his small congregation had a heart attack, attributed to the murder of Martin Luther King.

Bishop Ellis recalled how later that same day another police officer spotted his taxi cab and stopped him.

"He beat me, too," Ellis said.

The murder of Martin Luther King set off a wave of riots in many cities in the United States as followers of the leader vented their frustrations with the direction the country had taken. For 13 years, Martin Luther King Jr. had been a major focal

point of the Civil Rights Movement. He has rocketed to the forefront with his leadership in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that pushed for integration on that city's public bus line. At that point, Dr. King was only 26 years old.

In 1968, at the age of 39, King had gone to Memphis to support black city garbage workers who were on strike as they demanded better working conditions and better pay.

The night before he was assassinated, King had spoken at a large church gathering. Ellis had attended that civil rights gathering. It was the one where King preached a hopeful sermon. He told the audience that shouted its amens at every turn of his sermon that he had been "to the mountaintop." It was the speech where he had said, "I may not get there with you, but, we, as a people will get to the promised land."

Those who were there and working closely with him had noted how tired he appeared. Many had said he had delved into his soul to find the strength for the struggle in Memphis.

Many have said he seemed to feel a huge dread hanging over him -- that he knew trouble was in the wings. Some have said his comments about not getting "to the promised land" was a foreshadowing. Many felt Martin Luther King had had a premonition that death was awaiting him. The next day, April 4, 1968, he was slain.

In the sanctuary of the church he leads in Cleveland, Bishop Ellis picked up a hymnal and fingered through its pages, noting the lyrics of the many spiritual songs in it.

"That day marked a turning point," he said.

It was a turning point in many ways. Among them was the direction J. Delano Ellis took. He said he became even more a follower of the philosophy of King. Ellis said he recommited his life to peace, justice and love for humankind.

A few days after the assassination, U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York came to Memphis and met with Ellis and several other people who had been beaten by police during the time of the King murder. Ellis, his eyes focused clearly and looking unblinkingly, recalls that two months later, Kennedy was also killed by an assassin's bullet in Los Angeles. In America, two leaders strong in the movement for civil and human rights were killed by assassin's bullets.

It has been more than four decades since Bishop Ellis had the moonlighting job as a cab driver.

"Not a day goes by that I do not think of what happened," he said, his voice trailing off.

He was the cab driver who pulled up to the Lorraine Motel to drive Martin Luther King to dinner at a popular restaurant in the black community.

However, instead of the conversation with King and his closest associates on the drive to dinner, what Ellis heard was the crack of a rifle discharging a bullet that which traveled a short distance across a parking lot and struck a leader in the head.  J. Delano Ellis witnessed the horrible sight of Martin Luther King shot to death.


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