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Witness to Martin Luther King Jr. assassination speaks out 50 years later

Mary Ellen Ford was a 21-year-old cook at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel in April 1968, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. checked in for the last time.

King, who was in town to help lead striking sanitation workers, was one of a bevy of prominent black Americans who stayed at the Lorraine over the years. The motel, owned by Walter and Loree Bailey, was a safe place for prominent African-Americans to stay in the segregated South. 

One of the motel’s most distinguished guests was the iconic civil rights leader. 

“Mr. Bailey would be running around, ‘Get this room straightened up because Dr. King is coming,’” Ford told “Today” this week -- speaking out publicly about her experiences for the first time in five decades. 

“He just wanted to make sure everything was perfect.”

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>> Related: Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Ford, known in 1968 as Mary Ellen Norwood, told “Today” she loved her job at the motel, where she got to see celebrity guests like B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and, her favorite, Isaac Hayes.

She also had occasion to spot King as he came and went about his business in Memphis. On one occasion, she delivered a tray of hamburgers to him and the other civil rights leaders gathered with him in his hotel room, Room 306.

The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King’s good friend and Southern Christian Leadership Conference colleague, once joked that the pair stayed in that particular hotel room so much that they called it the “King-Abernathy suite.” 

Pictured is the interior of Room 306 of the former Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was staying on April 4, 1968, when an assassin's bullet took his life as King stood on the balcony outside the door. The former motel, along with the rooming house from which the fatal shot was fired, are now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, which has kept the room as King and his friend and colleague, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left it that day. ((AP Photo/Greg Campbell))

“When I took the tray in, I set it on the table,” Ford said. “He was laying on the bed … smoking a cigarette, ‘cause he smoked.”

Ford said she was cooking in the kitchen of the motel just after 6 p.m. April 4 when the crack of a rifle shot pierced the night. 

“At first, I thought it was firecrackers, you know? People shooting off firecrackers,” Ford said in her interview. “Then we all ran outside to see what was going on, and he was laying on the balcony.”

An iconic photo taken moments after the assassination shows King lying at his associates’ feet on that balcony, dying, as several of them frantically point police officers in the direction from which the gunfire came. A small group of stunned onlookers is down below.

Ford can be seen in that group, her arms crossed in front of her. 

“I’m standing there. I’m just dumbfounded, you know?” she said. “Shocked, like, ‘What just happened? This don’t happen here.’” 

Mary Ellen Ford, highlighted in oval, was a cook at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was struck down by an assassin's bullet as he stood on the balcony outside his room, Room 306. Ford, who is pictured in the background of an iconic photo taken moments after the assassination, spoke out publicly for the first time this week as the nation prepares to observe the 50th anniversary of King's assassination. ((Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images))

Ford crumpled into a ball in her chair, crying as the emotional memories got to her. She told “Today” that other than a few close family members, she never told anyone she was at the Lorraine Motel the night King died. 

Her own brother did not know she was there that night until about five years ago. 

“After all these years, you still get emotional,” NBC’s Craig Melvin said

“Yes,” Ford said. “I guess because I never even talked about it. Because I do, I get so emotional.”

It was later determined that escaped convict James Earl Ray shot King with a high-powered hunting rifle from the window of a rooming house less than 300 feet away, the Washington Post reported. A bag holding the gun, a radio with Ray’s prison inmate number scratched on it and a six-pack of beer, all bearing Ray’s fingerprints, were found dumped on a sidewalk nearby. 

Ford described the chaos following the shooting, with people screaming and shouting, “They shot Dr. King! Somebody shot Dr. King!”

“That’s all you could hear,” she told “Today.” 

The Rev. Jesse Jackson stands on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn. Jackson was at the motel when King, who was staying in Room 306, was struck down by a sniper's bullet. The former motel, along with the rooming house from which the shot was fired, are now part of the National Civil Rights Museum. ((AP Photo/Mark Humphrey))

Ford, who was listed in police logs as “Witness No. 43,” and other employees were kept locked down at the motel for three days as the investigation progressed. Ford said she and her coworkers initially didn’t think King would die of his wounds.

“You didn’t. Why?” Melvin asked.

“He can’t,” she said.

Ford said she prefers not to relive the tragedy she witnessed at the Lorraine Motel, which, along with the boarding house Ray fired from, has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum. Instead, she recalls the reaction of Memphis residents when they knew King was in town and staying at the motel.

“The thing that really stands out to me the most is seeing all these people sitting on the brick wall, waiting to get a glimpse of Dr. King,” she told “Today.”

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