Grandmother reveals 50-year-old secret about MLK’s assassination

Updated: Apr. 4, 2018 at 2:13 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Rhonda James has been living with a painful secret for 50 years.

"It was just what my mother wanted, my parents wanted for us. She wanted us to go on and go to school and go to college and have a regular life."

James is a grandmother who has lived in Memphis her whole life.

She was 8 years old in 1968 when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to support the Memphis sanitation workers in their strike for higher wages and better working conditions.

She has never before shared publicly what she experienced on the night of April 4, 1968.

"It's a special thing for me. It's something that has been secretly tucked."

For her, thinking back on that time brings back bad memories.

"It is PTSD, because it was a traumatic experience."

James is the daughter of saxophone player Ben Branch.

Branch loaded James and her 11-year-old brother into his car and drove them to Mason Temple for a sound check and the opportunity to meet the famous civil rights leader.

"We knew he was going to play Precious Lord for Dr. King that night," James recalled. "He said, 'You guys want to go with me?' We said, 'Yeah!'"

"Take My Hand, Precious Lord" was King's favorite gospel song. Branch was scheduled to play it during a rally for sanitation workers later that night.

After the sound check, James said she remembers getting into the car with her father and following King to the Lorraine Motel.

It would be the last time she'd go to the Lorraine Motel for 50 years.

"They went upstairs and as they went upstairs, we were sitting in the car, me and my brother, we were just looking. We were excited," James recalled.

She and her brother were sitting in the back seat of their grandmother's car, which was parked beneath room 306 at the motel.

"Dr. King hollered down to my father. He said, 'Ben.' My dad had the car door open. We were looking up at his face and all of the gentlemen were standing up there. 'I want you to play Precious Lord like you've never played it before. Play it real pretty.'"

Those were the last word's King would ever say.

A bullet fired from a Remington Model 760 rifle that was pointed out of a second story window at a rooming house across the street from the motel stuck King.

"Everybody pointed and we looked, you know, we were little kids. We were in the car. We looked back," James said. "It was traumatic, because when he got shot, lying on that concrete and seeing all that blood and everybody was over him."

James said she and her brother sat traumatized in their grandmother's car for six hours.

"We couldn't move. They were around us with flashlights and everything and the police were investigating what had happened in the scene, and we were little kids. My dad kept coming to the car asking, 'You alright?' Trying to keep us comfortable. He couldn't leave because they were, you know, talking to him."

James remembers never feeling hungry, never needing to use the restroom. She said she can still recall the stench of garbage in her nostrils--garbage that hadn't been picked up in weeks because of the sanitation strike.

"When we left here the National Guard had to take us home, because the streets were shut down and garbage was everywhere...but you just imagine going through every stop point, and we had to stop and check in with those police to let them know where my father was taking us."

James and her brother didn't go to school for two days.

"The day I got back to school, they took me in the office, and I cried like a baby," James recalled. "I cried for the first 10-15 years [when] I heard Precious Lord. I couldn't deal with it for a long time. Even sometimes now it makes me sad, because you've got to think about [it], that was the last request for my father."

Branch's saxophone is now part of a new exhibit inside the National Civil Rights Museum.

As for James, her first time back to Lorraine Motel was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that night.

"Just so many emotions. Right now it's like (holds stomach), I'm like turning right now. Just to bear thoughts of what it was," James said during an interview at the motel.

There's no official record--just as her mother wanted--of James or her brother being there during the assassination, only a photo of her father talking with police.

James reflects on her mother's decision to hide their presence with gratitude.

"I'm grateful, because I had a chance to live my life. I've had a chance to do what I need to do in life."

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