After decades of silence, a woman who witnessed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is finally speaking out. Rhonda James, was 8 years old when she and her 11-year-old brother watched Dr. King get gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
They kept the story private because their parents wanted them to have a “normal” lives. James, who is now a grandmother, had never spoken publicly about the “traumatic experience” until an interview with Memphis station Action 5 News last month, where she returned to the motel for the first time since Dr. King was killed.
“It’s a special thing for me. It’s something that has been secretly tucked,” she told the outlet.
At the time, Dr. King was in Memphis to support the 1968 sanitation workers strike. James’ father, saxophonist Ben Branch, was supposed to play King’s favorite gospel song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” at a rally later that night.
“We knew he was going to play Precious Lord for Dr. King that night,” she recalled. “He said, ‘You guys want to go with me?’ We said, ‘Yeah!'”
James and her brother went to soundcheck, and afterwards, Branch and the children followed King back to the Lorraine Motel. The children sat in the backseat of their grandmother’s car looking up at King.
“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,” recalled James.
From what she remembers, Dr. King yelled down to her father that he wanted him to “play Precious Lord like you’ve never played it before. Play it real pretty.”
The words would end up being his last, as Dr. King was struck in the neck by a bullet as he stood on the motel’s balcony. The 39-year-old civil rights leader was dead within an hour.
Amid the commotion, James meanwhile, and her brother, were told to stay in the car for six hours, but their father came to check on them repeatedly. The National Guard had to take them 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,” said James.
After the assassination, James and her brother stayed home from school two days. When they returned, James recalls crying “like a baby.”
For about 15 years after the assassination, James said that she cried whenever she heard the song “Take My Hand Precious Lord.”
In hindsight, James is “grateful” that her parents kept her and her brother’s names out of the public. “I had a chance to live my life,” she said. “I’ve had a chance to do what I need to do in life.”
There is no official record of the children being at the scene, although her father, who died in 1987, was snapped in a photo outside of the motel, and has been reported as one of the last people to speak with King.