He is one of the most celebrated figures in modern history, whose murder sent shock waves through American society.
But the extraordinary photos documenting the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King had until now remained in archives, never published.
Now, 44 years later, these remarkable images shot by Life magazine photographer Henry Groskinsky on the night of King’s death April 4, 1968, have come to light.
Acolytes: Shocked members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference gather in King’s room, including Andrew Young (far left, under table lamp) and the civil rights leader Reverend Ralph Abernathy, seated in the middle on the far bed. Photographer Groskinsky can be glimpsed in the mirror
That fateful night, on hearing that King had been shot, the snapper, who was on a job in Alabama, dashed to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. There, unfeasibly, he was allowed free rein to shoot the hotel grounds, the area and Dr. King’s room.
To mark the anniversary of the civil rights movement leader’s birthday, Life asked Henry Groskinsky, now 77, to reflect on that bleak night and the experience of documenting one of the most momentously sad moments in the country’s history.
‘I was surprised at how desolate it all was.
‘But then, people probably thought that the person who shot Dr King might still be out there somewhere.’
Just inches from where King was shot, outside room 306, friends and supporters huddled on the balcony.
The photographer remembered: ‘The people at the Lorraine were annoyed that the media was talking about how there were going to be all these demonstrations. Eventually there were, but not there. Not that night. It was very quiet. I was afraid that it was going to change.’
Support: Ralph Abernathy and Will D. Campbell, a long-time friend and civil rights activist, embrace in King’s room
The mood was such that Groskinsky- naturally- felt he was invading the grief of the King followers.
As the dumbfounded members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference sat in silent mourning in King’s room, he shot merely enough to record the event, before drawing back.
‘I was very discreet. I shot just enough to document what was going on, he told Life magazine.
‘I didn’t want to make a nuisance of myself.’
‘I was documenting a momentous event, and I thought that at any time I was going to be asked to leave, so I did what I could as quickly as I could.’
But in a remarkable image, which puts the photographer himself centre stage, Groskinsky also records his own presence.
He explained: ‘And right there, almost in the center of the picture, in the mirror you can see the reflection of me taking the picture. It’s very somber, and there I am with a flash camera. So I took a couple of pictures and just kind of backed off.’
Despite the prevailing sense of stunned disbelief, Groskinsky felt no hostility from the King team. He said: ‘I have to tell you, there was no friction with the people there at the Lorraine, even though here was this White man with a camera on the scene.’
Alone on the balcony, staring into the night in one heart-breaking picture is Will D. Campbell, in a moment of private grief.
‘This photograph was probably made almost as soon as we got there, because there were a lot of people milling about in the dark, and then all of a sudden it cleared up. When I saw him standing there, alone, I thought to myself, ‘Wow.’ This isn’t a posed picture. He’s in deep pain, standing there by himself, as if asking, My God, what has happened here?’
In an particularly disconcerting image Groskinsky also captured what must have been the killer’s eye’s view.
Shooting through trees from a derelict building across the road from the hotel, the photographer wound up shooting from what was probably the building next to the one from which King was shot by James Earl Ray.
He described a chilling scene in which no one knew where or who the killer was: ‘I stood on top of the commode in the bathroom of that abandoned building in order to take the pictures out of the window. It was less than 100 yards from where I was to where Dr. King must have been standing.’
‘The atmosphere of those dark, creepy buildings … It was a little scary crawling into the building, because who knows who is going to be there? Who doesn’t want you to be there?’
A particularly poignant shot shows King’s, still unpacked, initialled briefcase, open in his hotel room at the Lorraine.
Noone had touched the case, Groskinsky said: ‘That is Dr. King’s briefcase, just as it was. His brush. His pajamas. That’s a can of shaving cream there on top. And you can see his book, Strength to Love, peeping from the pocket.’
Hours after the 6pm shooting Groskinsky shot Theatrice Bailey, the brother of the motel’s owner, cleaning up blood from the balcony outside the ill fated room 306.
Looking back at the image, Groskinsky wondered how he did it: ‘I don’t know if there were official people around taking notes and pictures and things like that. Nobody was there when we were there. And the fact that the blood was still on the floor, and this man is actually putting it in a jar … When you see a picture like that, God, it feels invasive.’