MLK assassination still clouded with mystery after 50 years

By Doug G. Ware
The Martin Luther King Memorial stands with the Cherry Blossoms near the National Mall some 50 years after his assassination, on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. The civil rights leader was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI
1 of 12 | The Martin Luther King Memorial stands with the Cherry Blossoms near the National Mall some 50 years after his assassination, on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. The civil rights leader was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo

April 4 (UPI) -- Despite growing threats on his life, Martin Luther King Jr. had committed to going to Memphis.

There, he wanted to march with striking minority sanitation workers. Before the trip was over, the civil rights leader was dead and one of the most controversial -- and mysterious -- cases in U.S. history began.


Raised in Georgia, King became a Baptist minister at 18 and would spend the next two decades building a civil rights legacy recognized the world over. His national crusade, though, was abruptly cut short 50 years ago, on April 4, 1968.

In the decades since his death, King's assassination has been pored over perhaps more than any case other than the shooting of President John F. Kennedy. Examinations and re-examinations of King's death have been done at local and congressional levels, and conspiracy theories are nearly as common as those surrounding Kennedy.


ARCHIVE 1968: Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated

The shooting

King arrived in Memphis on April 3, 1968, after his flight was delayed by a bomb threat. That evening, he gave the final speech of his life -- in which his words later seemed prophetic.

"I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop," he said. "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. ... But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And 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 so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man."

Because King's visit to Memphis had been well advertised, it was no secret that he was staying at the Lorraine Motel. James Earl Ray, who at one time confessed to being the assassin, changed his residence on April 4 -- police said in order to be closer to King's motel. At a rooming house, he checks into room No. 8 under the name John Willard.


After purchasing a pair of binoculars, Ray returns to his room -- where police said he kept an eye on King's balcony. At 6:01 p.m., King emerged from the room with a few associates and a single shot rang out. The 39-year-old civil rights leader was struck in the head and thrown violently backward as members of his entourage, immortalized in a now-famous photograph, pointed toward the area they heard the shot come from -- Ray's rooming house.

"Martin Luther King took his cross on his shoulder over at the Lorraine Motel, and there he was crucified,"the Rev. Ralph Abernathy said in 1968.

The escape

According to the official version of events, Ray immediately packed up his belongings and fled the rooming house -- wrapping the rifle and a few other items in a blanket. After exiting to the street, he panicked when he spotted a police car and dumped the bundle of evidence on the sidewalk in front of the Canipe Amusement Co. offices. He hopped into his white Ford Mustang and took off.

Ray was identified as the shooter by two witnesses in the Canipe office and a resident of the rooming house who'd seen the gunman flee in the moments after the gunshot.


Within an hour, Ray had driven to Mississippi, then went on to Alabama and finally, Georgia. He then ditched the Mustang and took a Greyhound bus to Michigan before slipping across the U.S.-Canadian border.

It wasn't until June 8 that the 40-year-old suspect was ultimately tracked down in Britain, where he was arrested at London's Heathrow Airport attempting to board a flight to Belgium. Authorities said using multiple aliases, Ray intended to travel to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), a segregated country of Africa where he believed he would become a celebrated mercenary for killing King. Instead, he was extradited to the United States.

James Earl Ray, the accused assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., fled to Britain but was captured before he could reach his destination in Africa, investigators said. UPI Photo/File

The trial and 'Raoul'

After he fired his original public defender, Ray was represented at trial by famed defense lawyer Percy Foreman -- who convinced the accused gunman an acquittal was impossible. As a result, Ray pleaded guilty to King's death and was sentenced to 99 years in Tennessee's Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.


Three days later, Ray abruptly recanted his guilty plea and claimed he was merely a pawn in a grand conspiracy to kill King -- and that a shadowy figure named "Raoul" pulled the strings.

According to Ray, he first met Raoul months before the shooting as a means to obtain Canadian immigration papers. He said from that point forward, he participated in a number of criminal enterprises with the mastermind that took him across the United States. In April, he said, he was instructed by Raoul to buy a 30-06 rifle -- and the Mustang -- and told to rent the room overlooking the Lorraine Motel.

Ray would claim for the rest of his life that he was actually miles away from the scene when King was shot, although no one has ever been able to corroborate his alibi. Raoul, he said, disappeared after the assassination.

The investigations

Memphis police and the FBI concluded that Ray was responsible for killing King, although some argue federal authorities didn't conduct an adequate conspiracy investigation. With Ray's guilty plea, many investigators felt the case didn't need to be examined further.


In 1976, eight years after King's death and Ray's repeated denials, the case received a second look by a congressional committee that convened to investigate both the assassinations of King and Kennedy -- largely due to public doubts and significant elements of conspiracy in both cases.

One particular element of suspicion among the general public was fueled by the FBI's taking the lead in the investigation. Former bureau director J. Edgar Hoover had previously made efforts to compromise King's civil rights crusade and his leadership in the probe had a direct impact on pubic opinion about whether the FBI could be impartial. Hoover once called King the "most notorious liar in the United States."

While the House panel was most noted for its work on the Kennedy killing, it concluded that it was likely King died as the result of a conspiracy. However, the investigators noted the conspiracy most likely involved Ray's brothers -- not the U.S. government, as some theories alleged.

Ray testified before the committee and again told panel members he'd only been a puppet for the mysterious Raoul. While the U.S. Justice Department and most experts have long doubted the existence of Raoul, it was ultimately learned that the FBI in 1968 had actually followed up on a potential lead for such a figure.


While staying in Los Angeles in the weeks before King's death, Ray had received a phone call from a man who identified himself to the desk clerk as "J.C. Hardin." The FBI went so far as to commission a composite sketch of Hardin, but dropped the pursuit after Ray pleaded guilty. Some hypothesize that Hardin, in fact, adds credibility to Ray's story.

Some materials from the FBI's 1968 investigation remain classified, and sealed, until 2027. An effort to get the documents released via Congress failed in 2010.

Ray's appeals

Ray spent three decades attempting to get a new trial in King's assassination, but was ultimately unsuccessful. He was, however, able to persuade a number of people -- including members of the King family and the pastor's former lawyer -- that he was railroaded.

Several members of the King family -- including widow Coretta Scott King and sons Martin Luther King III and Dexter King -- believe Ray was not the shooter.

"The evidence pointed away from Mr. Ray," Coretta Scott King said in 1999. "He was not the person we felt that really actually killed him."


The attorney, William Pepper, wrote multiple books on the assassination and argued that a conspiracy showed the U.S. government, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community all had a hand in the shooting -- largely because they wanted to "silence King's growing criticism of the Vietnam War and his anti-poverty campaign."

"We've basically solved the case, telling people how it happened and why it happened," Pepper told the Detroit Metro Times last month.

Some believe the number of threats against King's life, which had increased substantially in the months and years preceding his death, make it much more likely that someone other than Ray pulled the trigger. Segregationists, for example, viewed him as a prominent enemy.

"He caused more strife in this country than anyone I can think of," Eugene Bull Connor, the former police commissioner in Birmingham, Ala., told UPI in 1968.

Over the years, Ray attempted multiple times to escape from his Tennessee prison, and was even attacked during a 1981 riot.

He ultimately died behind bars in 1998 at age 70 after serving nearly 30 years of his 99-year sentence. To this day, the most incriminating evidence that argues for Ray's guilt -- his fingerprints on both the 30-06 rifle that killed King and the binoculars found in the bundle.


King's legacy

A half-century after his death, King remains one of the most celebrated civil rights leaders in U.S. history. Endless city streets and buildings have been renamed in his honor, and the Lorraine Motel -- where he spent his final day -- is now the National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 1991.

"Let's pledge our best efforts to protect the advances that we have inherited and make real the legacy that has been entrusted to each of us," former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told Memphis' Commercial Appeal this week. "That is our charge, and this is our moment."

Even with the growing threats on his life, King continued to preach peaceful protest -- a hallmark Abernathy and others like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who picked up his mantle, continued to advocate in the years that followed.

King is perhaps best known for the 1963 speech he delivered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., -- in which he proclaimed, "I have a dream." The speech followed the civil rights March on Washington.


"We are still marching," Holder said. "We are still striving. And we are still calling on our nation's leaders to act with a sense of justice, compassion and common humanity."

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