By Barbara Heimlich
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4th, 1968, an event that sent shock waves reverberating around the world.
On the night of April 3rd, King gave a speech at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis. In his speech, King seemed to foreshadow his own untimely passing, or at least to strike a particularly reflective note, ending with these now-historic words: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
At 6:05 p.m. the following day, King was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he and his associates were staying, when a sniper’s bullet struck him in the neck. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead about an hour later, at the age of 39.
A Baptist minister and founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King had led the civil rights movement since the mid-1950s, using a combination of impassioned speeches and nonviolent protests to fight segregation and achieve significant civil rights advances for African Americans.
King Assassination Conspiracy
On June 8th, authorities apprehended the suspect in King’s murder, a small-time criminal named James Earl Ray, at London’s Heathrow Airport. Witnesses had seen him running from a boarding house near the Lorraine Motel carrying a bundle; prosecutors said he fired the fatal bullet from a bathroom in that building. Authorities found Ray’s fingerprints on the rifle used to kill King, a scope and a pair of binoculars.
On March 10, 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to King’s murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. No testimony was heard in his trial. Shortly afterwards, however, Ray recanted his confession, claiming he was the victim of a conspiracy. The House Select Committee on Assassinations (who also investigated the assassination of JFK) maintained that Ray’s shot killed king.
Ray later found sympathy in an unlikely place: Members of King’s family, including his son Dexter, who publicly met with Ray in 1977 and began arguing for a reopening of his case. Though the U.S. government conducted several investigations into the trial—each time confirming Ray’s guilt as the sole assassin—controversy still surrounds the assassination.
At the time of Ray’s death in 1998, King’s widow Coretta Scott King (who in the weeks after her husband’s death had courageously continued the campaign to aid the striking Memphis sanitation workers and carried on his mission of social change through nonviolent means) publicly lamented that “America will never have the benefit of Mr. Ray’s trial, which would have produced new revelations about the assassination…as well as establish the facts concerning Mr. Ray’s innocence.”
For some 50 years, the federal government has maintained that James Earl Ray was the gunman who assassinated King that day. But within Martin Luther King’s family, there remains a persistent belief that Ray is innocent, and was set up to take the fall.
FBI investigators at the time traced the shot to a rooming house across the street, and witnesses directed them to a large bundle dropped on the sidewalk after the shooting. It contained a pair of binoculars, a newspaper with a story about King staying at the Lorraine Motel, and a .30-06 Remington Gamemaster that had fired one shot. All three bore the fingerprints of an escaped convict named James Earl Ray.
Ray, a white supporter of segregationist George Wallace, was a career criminal who’d been convicted at least four separate times for robbing a cafe, a taxi, a post office and a grocery store. A year before, he’d escaped from Missouri State Penitentiary while serving a 20-year sentence, and was on the lam at the time King was shot. An international manhunt led to his capture in June 1968 at Heathrow Airport in London, where he was caught carrying two fake Canadian passports. Ray confessed to the crime on March 10, 1969 and received a 99-year prison sentence, which increased to a 100-year sentence after he briefly escaped in 1977.
But within a few days of confessing, Ray began to claim his innocence, arguing that that he had been set up by a man he knew only as “Raoul.” It was Raoul, Ray said, who had directed him to buy the gun and the binoculars, and rent the room across the street from the motel. Ray said he wasn’t in the room when King was shot, but he was unable to consistently explain where he had been, or keep other important details in his story straight. Over several decades, federal investigators have routinely concluded that Raoul doesn’t exist.
This doesn’t mean that Ray couldn’t have received assistance. Some people had trouble, for example, believing Ray had arranged his international escape all by himself, since he had a track record of getting caught for more minor crimes. When authorities caught him in London, he’d been planning to travel to Rhodesia, a former African state ruled by a white minority in present-day Zimbabwe.
But even if Ray had help, the evidence strongly pointed to him pulling the trigger. Ray’s fingerprints were the only ones found on the gun, and there were no witnesses who had seen him with Raoul during the nine months they supposedly knew each other (Ray’s description of Raoul also changed a few times).
During the years following King’s assassination, doubts about the adequacy of the case against Ray were fueled by revelations of the extensive surveillance of King by the FBI and other government agencies. Beginning in 1976 the House Select Committee on Assassinations, chaired by Representative Louis Stokes, re-examined the evidence concerning King’s assassination, as well as that of President John F. Kennedy. The committee’s final report suggested that Ray may have had co-conspirators. The report nonetheless concluded that there was no convincing evidence of government complicity in King’s assassination.