Ralph McGill: A Free Man Killed by White Slaves

A 1968 column about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. written by Atlanta editor Ralph McGil

Editor’s note: Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968. Atlanta editor and columnist Ralph McGill’s editorial from page 1 of the April 5, 1968 Atlanta Constitution, titled “A Free Man Killed by White Slaves,” is reprinted here.

White slaves killed Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis.

At the moment the triggerman fired, Martin Luther King was the free man. The white killer (or killers) was a slave to his own sense of inferiority, a slave to hatred, a slave to all the bloody instincts that surge in a brain when a human being decides to become a beast.

In the wake of this disaster in Memphis, a great many such slaves must consider if they wish to continue serving their masters of fear, hate, inferiority, and beastliness. It is something of an irony that Dr. King was free and hated by so many slaves. It is perhaps too much to hope, but much of the violent reaction to this bloody murder could be blunted if in every city and town there would now be a resolve to remove what remains of injustice and racial prejudice from schools, from training and job opportunities, from housing and community life in general.


Dr. King's voice was the last one arguing for nonviolence. The young militants respected him enough to pledge him they would accept his leadership in the summer ahead.

And now?

Ralph McGill's newspaper column from The Atlanta Constitution on April 5, 1968, the day after the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. (AJC archives)

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The old ghost of John Brown whispers out of the by-gone years. He was a white man and a violent one. He was hanged after his foolish foray at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in the autumn of 1859. Brown was the martyr. His death was a catalyst. His soul became a cutting edge that broke hearts and walls as the great war came on with a rush. One frets with that memory.

There are other effects of martrydoms.

Dr. King would not want his death to be an emotion that brought on what he had all his life opposed —violence and death. Atlanta’s mayor Ivan Allen, who drove his car through a rain-swept city to the home of Dr. King and took the stunned wife to the airport where she learned that death had come in Memphis, was another symbol of the South. He, too, was a free man. He was not a slave to hate and fear. His city is not a slave city bound by such terrible chains as held the killers in Memphis.

That city, which allowed a strike of Negro garbage workers to grow into a protest against all the many remaining forms of racist prejudice, did not meet a necessary test. And so Memphis became the site of a slave uprising where death and hate opposed freedom.

The Beast

The Memphis killer and his associates have done their own race a grave and hideous injustice. They have made it possible for blind violence to be loosed. They have elevated the beast in man. They may have imperiled the negotiations that, hopefully, made be arranged to end the war in Vietnam. The slave beast does not reason. The beast, unless chained, is only a beast.

Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph M. McGill writing at his old Royal typewriter.

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The white South — the white population in all the country — must now give an answer. If injustice and inequity, if racist prejudices and discrimination now become the targets of all decent men and women, Dr. King’s death may bring about what he sought for himself, his people and country.

If this does not happen, then slaves who serve masters of hatred, fear and evil will have to be put down mercilessly and immediately.

Out of martrydom must come the right answer.

RELATED: Ralph McGill's column about the 1963 March on Washington

Visit Ralph McGill's marker on Atlanta's Civil Rights Walk of Fame

»Local and indepth: How the AJC covered the civil rights movement