Witness at Memphis motel where Martin Luther King was shot recounts 'shock' for first time

In the footnotes of history, she is known only in police records as Witness #43.

And for five decades, most people never knew what Mary Ellen Ford saw on April 4, 1968.

At the time, a 21-year-old Ford was a waitress and cook at the famed Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would stay to take part in the energetic civil rights protests sweeping the South.

Ford opened up on "Today" for the first time in decades — on the eve of the 50th anniversary of King's assassination — to describe what she witnessed and how her life has forever changed. Her own brother only learned five years ago that she was at the motel when a sniper's bullet claimed King's life, altering the course of a movement.

Ford is etched into the pages of history via in a famous photo after the shooting. She is seen in white, her right arm folded across her waist as other workers wait anxiously for an ambulance to arrive.

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Scene of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination
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TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES - APRIL 04: Police carrying body of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after he was shot by assassin James Earl Ray. (Photo by Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) 4/4/1968-Memphis, TN: Police stand guard on balcony of motel in which Negro leader Dr. Martin Luther King was shot 4/4. King was felled by a single shot as he stood on balcony of his downtown motel.
Bloodstained balcony of Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was shot by white sniper, James Earl Ray. (Photo by Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
View of a nearby rooming house (on the left) where suspect James Earl Ray was believed to have fired the fatal shot that killed Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968. (Photo by Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Daily News front page April, 5, 1968, Headline: MARTIN KING SHOT TO DEATH - Gunned Down in Memphis - A Man of Peace. In December 1964, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then 35, accepted Nobel Peace Prize from Gunnar Jahn in Oslo, Norway. Last night, in Memphis, Tenn., Dr. King was shot to death as he stood on balcony of his hotel. He was there to lead garbage strike marches. Two men were arrested shortly after shooting. (Photo By: /NY Daily News via Getty Images)
An unidentified man stands outside the door of room 306 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, a few feet from where Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated earlier in the evening, Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968. The photo was taken from a nearby rooming house where suspect James Earl Ray was believed to have fired the fatal shot. (Photo by Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Simulated view through a gunsight of the balcony at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed.
(Original Caption) View of balcony on which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was standing when fatally shot April 4th as he leaned over railing to talk to friends outside the Lorraine Motel.
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"I never even talked about it, because I do — I get so emotional," she told NBC News' Craig Melvin.

Ford said that, before King was shot, she would catch glimpses of him as he came and went from Room 306 of the motel. At one point, she was tasked with delivering hamburgers to him and other civil rights leaders who used the motel room as a de facto headquarters.

"When I took the tray in, I set it on the table," Ford recalled. "And like I say, he was laying on the bed ... smoking a cigarette, because he smoked."

At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, Ford was cooking in the kitchen when she heard a loud burst ring out. She thought people were shooting off firecrackers. She was mistaken.

"We all ran outside to see what was going on and he was laying on the balcony," Ford said of King. "And I'm standing there. I'm just dumbfounded, you know? Just shocked."

"Like, what just happened, you know? This don't happen here. And — this not OK," she added, wiping away tears.

A lone gunman, later identified as James Earl Ray, shot King as he stood on the motel's second-floor balcony. The moment was a blur, and she could hear people screaming out, "They shot Dr. King! They shot Dr. King!"

In the aftermath, as news spread of the attack, Ford said phone calls began pouring into the motel.

"Even the payphone on the outside, they were calling on that," she said. "'Did Dr. King get shot? Did Dr. King get shot?'"

King would later die at the hospital. Ray, who escaped from the scene, was tied to the shooting and captured two months later in the United Kingdom. He died in prison in 1998.

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MONTGOMERY, AL - MAY 1956: Civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. relaxes at home in May 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MAY 13: Civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks with people after delivering a sermon on May 13, 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 - 1968) sits on a couch and speaks on the telephone after encountering a white mob protesting against the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama, May 26, 1961. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
Martin Luther King Jr, at a press conference after meeting with President Johnson at the White House to discuss civil rights, Washington DC, December 3, 1961. (Photo by Warren K. Leffler/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
Civil Rights leaders Fred Shuttlesworth (left), Martin Luther King Jr (center), and Ralph Abernathy (right) attend a funeral for victims of the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. The September 15, 1963 bombing killed four young African-American girls. (Photo by Declan Haun/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
President Lyndon B Johnson (1908 - 1973) discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968). The act, part of President Johnson's 'Great Society' program trebled the number of black voters in the south, who had previously been hindered by racially inspired laws, 1965. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY- MARCH 25: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seen close from the rear, speaking in front of 25,000 civil rights marchers, at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march in front of Alabama state capital building on March 25, 1965. In Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen Somerstein/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 25: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 Selma To Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marchers, in front of Montgomery, Alabama state capital building. On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)
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The Rev Al Sharpton speaking at a Dr, Martin Luther King jr Day rally.
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Detroit, Michigan - June 22, 2013 - Thousands of civil rights, labor, and community activists commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Walk to Freedom" with a march that followed the same route down Woodward Avenue. At the 1963 civil rights march, Dr. King previewed his "I Have a Dream" speech which he delivered two months later at the March on Washington. © Jim West/Alamy Live News
Controversial paraphrased quote on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Martin Luther King, Jr. with wife Coretta Scott King
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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (right), President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Mathew Ahmann (center), Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interrracial Justice during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC.
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Today, the Lorraine Motel is now the scene of the National Civil Rights Museum. Ford, who eventually moved to Lansing, Michigan, and raised a family, doesn't like to speak publicly about that terrifying day that King died.

Her favorite memory, she said, is thinking of the people who would come to the motel each time King stayed there, waiting to see the civil rights leader emerge from his room — and knowing they were witnessing a man who would change the country.

"Standing, sitting on the brick wall, waiting to get a glimpse of Dr. King," she said of the onlookers. "Just to see Dr. King."

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