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

Published: Tuesday, April 03, 2018 @ 6:27 PM

Civil rights leader Andrew Young, left on balcony, and others accompanying the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. point police in the direction of a rifle shot that struck King, lying at their feet, in the neck as he stood outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis the evening of April 4, 1968. King, who was in Memphis to help lead a sanitation workers' strike, died a short time later at a hospital. Mary Ellen Ford, a motel worker standing among the people on the ground below, spoke out about what she witnessed 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
Civil rights leader Andrew Young, left on balcony, and others accompanying the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. point police in the direction of a rifle shot that struck King, lying at their feet, in the neck as he stood outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis the evening of April 4, 1968. King, who was in Memphis to help lead a sanitation workers' strike, died a short time later at a hospital. Mary Ellen Ford, a motel worker standing among the people on the ground below, spoke out about what she witnessed 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)

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.”

>> 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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Waffle House shooting: 4 dead after nude gunman opens fire in Tennessee; victims identified

Published: Sunday, April 22, 2018 @ 8:12 AM
Updated: Sunday, April 22, 2018 @ 7:48 PM

Police: 4 Dead After Waffle House Shooting by Nude Gunman

At least four people are dead after a shooting at a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee.

Killed were Taurean C. Sanderlin, 29, a Waffle House employee who was outside the restaurant when the gunman opened fire; Joe R. Perez, 20, of Nashville, who was a patron standing outside the restaurant; Akilah Dasilva, 23, of Antioch, who was wounded inside the restaurant and died at Vanderbilt University Medial Center; and DeEbony Groves, 21, of Gallatin, a senior at Belmont University in Nashville. 

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Melania Trump poses with Bushes, Clintons and Obamas at Barbara Bush funeral

Published: Sunday, April 22, 2018 @ 5:44 PM

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 21:   First Lady Melania Trump arrives at St. Martin's Episcopal Church for a funeral service for former first lady Barbara Bush on April 21, 2018 in Houston, Texas. Bush, wife of former president George H. W. Bush and mother of former president George W. Bush, died at her home in Houston on April 17 at the age of 92.   (Photo by David J. Phillip-Pool/Getty Images)
Pool/Getty Images
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 21: First Lady Melania Trump arrives at St. Martin's Episcopal Church for a funeral service for former first lady Barbara Bush on April 21, 2018 in Houston, Texas. Bush, wife of former president George H. W. Bush and mother of former president George W. Bush, died at her home in Houston on April 17 at the age of 92. (Photo by David J. Phillip-Pool/Getty Images)(Pool/Getty Images)

The current first lady posed for a picture with former first ladies and past presidents Saturday at Barbara Bush’s funeral.

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First Lady Melania Trump is seen in the image, taken by photographer Paul Morse, with the Bushes, Clintons and Obamas.

Trump, who attended the funeral without her husband, is seen standing alongside Michelle Obama.

“It was my honor to travel to Houston to give my respects to Barbara Bush and the remarkable life she led as a mother, wife, and fearless First Lady,” she said in a statement. “My sincerest thoughts and prayers continue to be with George H.W., and the entire Bush family.”

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Fire Mueller? Don’t do it, Ohio Republicans say

Published: Sunday, April 22, 2018 @ 2:52 PM
Updated: Sunday, April 22, 2018 @ 2:52 PM


            Robert Mueller on Feb. 16, 2011, as he testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. (James Berglie/Zuma Press/TNS)
            James Berglie
Robert Mueller on Feb. 16, 2011, as he testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. (James Berglie/Zuma Press/TNS)(James Berglie)

Most Ohio lawmakers on Capitol Hill — including Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton — say it would be a mistake for President Donald Trump to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, though taking action to block the president from doing so has more opposition among local Republicans.

“We need to let Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation go forward,” said Turner, R-Dayton. “He is looking at important questions: what was the activity that was undertaken by Russia, how do we stop it in the future, and what actions may have been undertaken by Russia with the presidential campaigns?”

RELATED: White House says there are no plans to fire Mueller, Rosenstein

Emily Benavides, a Portman spokeswoman, said U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “has already stated that only he can fire the special counsel and he believes there is no cause to do so. Rob has said numerous times that it would be a big mistake to head down this path.”

Portman, however, is not certain a bill to protect Mueller is constitutional. In an interview last week on CNN, Portman said “the president has the constitutional right to be able to hire and fire people who work for him. As my lawyers have looked at the legislation … they believe it is not consistent with that constitutional right.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, said Trump “has the right” to fire Mueller but added the president has “been very clear he’s not going to do it. I don’t know how many times he has to say it.”

Calls by some conservatives to fire Mueller intensified after an April raid on the home and offices of Trump attorney Michael Cohen. Although the raid was conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and not Mueller’s office, some see it as an example of the special counsel expanding the probe beyond its original purpose.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Trump is to blame for how long the investigation is taking. “I just wish the president would put everything on the table, would quit stonewalling, tell us everything and get this investigation done with,” Brown said. “It’s gone and on and on because the president continues to call people names and continues to tweet that there’s nothing there and then things are found.”

Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, has expressed concerns about the Mueller probe, but agreed it would not be “advisable” to fire him. But Davidson said he would probably vote against a bill protecting Mueller from firing, preferring instead a measure questioning the amount of money the Justice Department is spending on the probe.

“We’re OK with you launching an investigation. We support letting Justice have its blindfold on and restoring credibility to the Department of Justice. But we are concerned the actions of the special investigator are working at odds with that,” he said.

Mueller, a former director of the FBI, was named special counsel last spring after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from investigating potential contacts between Russian intelligence officials and Trump aides.

Because of Mueller’s investigation, federal grand juries have indicted 13 Russian nationals for trying to interfere with the 2016 campaign. In addition, Paul Manafort, who for a time managed Trump’s 2016 campaign, and Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, were indicted on charges of money laundering in connection with the Ukraine government

Gates, former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos have pleaded guilty to making false statements and are cooperating with Mueller’s investigators. But no information has been made public about whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to tip the election toward Trump.

Presidents have the power to fire people in the executive branch. In October of 1973, U.S. Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out President Richard Nixon’s order to dismiss Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox who was investigating the Watergate break-in.

Bork obeyed Nixon’s order after U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than fire Cox and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus was fired when he refused to dismiss Cox.

Known as the Saturday Night Massacre, Cox’s dismissal intensified calls for Nixon’s impeachment and directly led to his resignation as president in August of 1974.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, predicted a similar outcome if Trump fired Mueller.

“Let me be perfectly clear — firing Robert Mueller or appointing a new deputy attorney general with the express purpose of stonewalling this investigation would be an egregious abuse of power, and an impeachable offense,” Ryan said.

Rep. Stive Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, said Mueller should “follow the facts wherever they may lead. I look forward to seeing the results of his investigation, and hope it reaches a conclusion soon.”

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Cincinnati, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he would “like to see this investigation carried out fairly, thoroughly, and expeditiously.

“I look forward to the conclusion and findings of the investigation so that we can move forward with the work the American people sent us to Washington to do,” he said.

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Welfare reform caught up in passage of farm bill in Congress

Published: Sunday, April 22, 2018 @ 2:47 PM
Updated: Sunday, April 22, 2018 @ 2:47 PM


            Welfare reform caught up in passage of farm bill in Congress
Welfare reform caught up in passage of farm bill in Congress

Republicans’ next big push for welfare reform has come courtesy of a bill designed to pay for the nation’s farm programs.

The federal farm bill, which expires Oct. 1, is aimed at providing federal support to farmers who may need it during tough times. But roughly 80 percent of the bill goes to federal food assistance, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, making the bill’s passage traditionally a bipartisan affair, with urban and rural lawmakers joining forces to both help feed the poor and to keep farmers facing rough times from being driven out of business entirely.

RELATED: House panel moves to curb food stamps

But this year’s bill has been different. Instead, to Democrats’ fury, House Republicans see the farm bill as an opportunity to take a crack at welfare reform.

A bill passed on party lines by the House Agriculture Committee last week would significantly beef up current SNAP work requirements. Republicans say the program should shrink – the economy has improved and the program was designed to be a hand up, not a hand out. Democrats, meanwhile, say it’s cruel.

Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, compares it to the unemployed good friend who moves in with you. “You’d be like, ‘hey, man, I’m glad to help you out for awhile, but are you going to go to any job interviews?’” he said. “We would do that! And somehow when the government does it it’s mean. And we have to be willing to do what we would do even for our friends or we’re not going to get this spending under control.”

Counters Melissa Boteach, the senior vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity program at the left-leaning Center for American Progress: “Taking away someone’s food isn’t going to help them find a job any faster.”

Here’s how the bill would change work requirements: Current law requires able-bodied adults between 18 and 49 with no dependents to work at least 20 hours a week or receive an equivalent amount of job training in order to receive the benefits.

They’re allowed to be unemployed for three months during a three-year period, but beyond that, face the risk of losing their benefits. And states have the flexibility to loosen that requirement or beef it up, depending on their preference. The disabled, seniors, and those taking care of children are exempt from the work requirement.

The bill passed last week by the House Agriculture Committee changes that age range to the ages of 18 to 59. It also imposed the work requirements on those with children over age six. And it imposed a set of progressively tougher sanctions for those who can’t prove they’re working or receiving job training, starting with the loss of benefits for a year.

Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, said the new requirements include “some of the most punitive provisions I’ve ever seen in doing 30 years of doing this work.”

“I’ve never seen anything as cruel as this piece of legislation,” she said.

But its defenders say the bill will help refocus the program into one that helps those who cannot help themselves.

“The economy’s in great shape,” said Robert Doar of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “There are opportunities out there. The labor force participation is still below what it was at the beginning of the Great Recession. There are still people who are eligible to work who are remaining on the sidelines.”

He said more than nine million Americans to receive the benefits “could work.”

“I think most Americans believe the purpose of programs like the food stamp benefit is to help people move out of poverty through earnings, not to keep them more comfortable or less uncomfortable in poverty,” he said.

SNAP helps to feed some 40 million low income Americans. In Ohio, Hamler-Fugitt said, some 1.4 million people participate. Of that group, more than 700,000 are children. Some 200,000 are seniors. And 360,000 are people with disabilities.

The bill also federal dollars to help states create job training programs for those who must meet the work requirement.

Democrats, however, argue that money isn’t nearly enough.

Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Cleveland Democrat who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, said states will have to develop training programs to comply with the bill. And there’s no requirement, she said, that training leads to work. “We are, in fact, creating a bureaucracy at the state and local level,” she said, saying that the bill doesn’t include enough money to actually pay for that bureaucracy.

But Doar disputes the notion that the bill underfunded the job training programs, saying states and localities also have job training resources. “I think they could make substantial, significant progress to helping people move out of poverty with the resources being offered here,” said Doar, a former commissioner of social services for the state of New York.

Rep. Jim Jordan, an Urbana Republican who has long championed welfare reform, said the move is overdue.

He said reforming welfare would “help everyone – help the economy, help the budget, help employers and most importantly, help people stuck in the dependency welfare lifestyle.”

“Every single day when I’m out an about in the district, I’m talking to employers who are finding it difficult to find people to work,” he said. “There are employment needs out there.”

Still, he’s not sure if he’ll back the bill when it comes to the floor of the House, he said in an interview this week. He’s concerned about the money devoted to workforce development. “I’m nervous about another government program,” he said. And he knows it will be a hard sell in the Senate, where the majority is far more narrow. He said if Congress can’t reform welfare as part of its agriculture bill, it should consider a short-term extension until it can do so.

“I want to make sure it’s the right tough love approach that is going to help people get a better position in life and recognizes the fact that the taxpayers are paying for this,” he said.

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BY THE NUMBERS

80 percent of the farm bill goes to federal food assistance

SNAP helps to feed some 40 million low income Americans.

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