Written By: Ben Cosgrove

On April 4, 1968, LIFE photographer Henry Groskinsky and writer Mike Silva, on assignment in Alabama, learned that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The two men jumped into their car, raced the 200 miles to the scene of the assassination, and there to their astonishment found that they had unfettered access to the motel’s grounds; to nearby abandoned buildings from which the fatal rifle shot likely came; to Dr. King’s motel room; and to the bleak, blood-stained balcony where the civil rights leader had fallen, mortally wounded, hours earlier.

“I was astonished by how desolate it all was,” Groskinsky told LIFE. “Then again, everyone probably thought that the person who shot Dr. King might still be out there somewhere.”

For reasons that have been lost in the intervening decades, Groskinsky’s photographs from that eerily quiet night in Memphis taken at the site, and on the very day, of one of the signal events of the 20th century were not published in LIFE magazine, and the story behind them was not told. Until now.

[The new LIFE special edition, Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., at Amazon.]

(Note: A slightly different version of this post appeared on an earlier version of LIFE.com.)

The Lorraine Motel, n the hours after Dr. King's assassination, April 4, 1968.

The Lorraine Motel, in the hours after Dr. King’s assassination, April 4, 1968.

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Will D. Campbell, alone on the Lorraine Motel balcony, gazes out into the night. "This picture was probably made as soon as we got there," Groskinsky told LIFE.com. "When I saw him standing there, alone, I thought it looked as if he was just asking himsel

Will D. Campbell, a minister and activist alone on the Lorraine Motel balcony, gazed out into the night. “This picture was probably made as soon as we got there,” Groskinsky told LIFE.com. “When I saw him standing there, alone, I thought it looked as if he was just asking himself, My God, what has happened here?”

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Outside of room 306, Theatrice Bailey, the brother of the Lorraine Motel's owner, cleans blood from the balcony. "There was no friction with the people there at the Lorraine," Groskinsky recalled, "even though here was this white man with a camera on the

Outside of room 306, Theatrice Bailey, the brother of the Lorraine Motel’s owner, cleaned blood from the balcony. “There was no friction with the people there at the Lorraine,” Groskinsky recalled, “even though here was this white man with a camera on the o friction with the people there at the Lorraine,” Groskinsky recalled, “even though here was this white man with a camera on the scene.”

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Theatrice Bailey attempts to clean blood from the balcony, hours after the 6 PM shooting of Dr. King. "I don't know if there were official people around taking notes and pictures and things like that," Groskinsky told LIFE.com. "Nobody was there when we w

Theatrice Bailey attempted to clean blood from the balcony, hours after the 6 PM shooting of Dr. King. “I don’t know if there were official people around taking notes and pictures and things like that,” Groskinsky told LIFE.com. “Nobody was there when we were there. But the fact that the blood was still on the floor, and this man was actually putting it in a jar … well, when you see a picture like that, God, it feels invasive.”

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

The back of a photograph taken by LIFE photographer Henry Groskinsky on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tenn.

The back of a photograph taken by LIFE photographer Henry Groskinsky on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tenn.

Life Pictures/Getty Images

The building on the left is the abandoned building from which Groskinsky took several of his photographs on the night of April 4. "It was a little scary crawling into the building, because who knew who was going to be there? Who doesn't want you to be the

The building on the left was the abandoned building from which Groskinsky took several of his photographs on the night of April 4. “It was a little scary crawling into the building, because who knew who was going to be there? Who doesn’t want you to be there? The atmosphere was very dark, very creepy.”

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Colleagues gather on the balcony outside the Lorraine Motel's room 306, just a few feet from where Dr. King was shot, April 4, 1968.

Colleagues gathered on the balcony outside the Lorraine Motel’s room 306, just a few feet from where Dr. King was shot, April 4, 1968.

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s neatly packed, monogrammed briefcase in his room at the Lorraine Motel, April 4, 1968   with his brush, his pajamas, a can of shaving cream and his book, Strength to Love, visible in the pocket.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s neatly packed, monogrammed briefcase in his room at the Lorraine Motel, April 4, 1968, with his brush, his pajamas, a can of shaving cream and his book, Strength to Love, visible in the pocket.

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Stunned, silent members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Dr. King's room at the Lorraine Motel, April 4, 1968, including Andrew Young (far left, under table lamp) and civil rights leader and Dr. King's colleague, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, in

Stunned, silent members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Dr. King’s room at the Lorraine Motel, April 4, 1968, including Andrew Young (far left, under the table lamp) and civil rights leader and Dr. King’s colleague, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, in the middle on the far bed. “I was very discreet,” Groskinsky recalled. “I shot just enough to document what was going on. There, almost in the center of the picture, in the mirror, you can see my reflection. I took a couple of pictures and just kind of backed off.”

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Ralph Abernathy and Will D. Campbell, a long-time friend and civil rights activist, embrace in Dr. King's room. "I was documenting a momentous event," Groskinsky told LIFE.com, "and I thought that at any time I was going to be asked to leave, so I did wh

Ralph Abernathy and Will D. Campbell, a long-time friend and civil rights activist, embraced in Dr. King’s room. “I was documenting a momentous event,” Groskinsky told LIFE.com, “and I thought that at any time I was going to be asked to leave, so I did what I could as quickly as I could.”

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

A photo taken through tree branches by Henry Groskinsky from a derelict building across the street from the Lorraine Motel, April 4, 1968, very close to where the shot that killed Dr. King likely came from.

A photo taken through tree branches by Henry Groskinsky from a derelict building across the street from the Lorraine Motel, April 4, 1968, very close to where the shot that killed Dr. King likely came from.

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

An airplane dispatched by the U.S. government to retrieve Dr. King's body and return it to Atlanta, Ga., waits on the tarmac in Memphis, Tenn., the day after MLK's assassination. "Here we were, two white guys in the Deep South right after the murder of th

An airplane that was dispatched by the U.S. government to retrieve Dr. King’s body and return it to Atlanta, Ga., waited on the tarmac in Memphis, Tenn., the day after MLK’s assassination.

Henry Groskinsky/Life Pictures/Getty Images

The cover of the April 12, 1968, issue of LIFE magazine.

The cover of the April 12, 1968, issue of LIFE magazine.

Fred Ward/Life Magazine

More Like This

Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights leaders walk in Medgar Evers' funeral procession, Jackson, Miss.. history

Medgar Evers’ Funeral, June, 1963

history

Mary: Blessed Art Thou Among Women

history

A Story of America in 100 Photographs

history

The Influenza Outbreak of 1957

history

Michelle Obama: Her Inspiring Story

history

Anne Frank: Her Life and Her Legacy