Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

James Earl Ray: The Man Who Killed Dr. Martin Luther King

Conspiracy?

It's almost too perfect.

A racist petty criminal looking to make a name for himself stalks a well-protected black civil rights leader and finally slays him, then manages to make an almost-clean getaway — but not before dropping the murder weapon (with prints) and his personal radio with his prison ID engraved on it.

It's almost too perfect because nobody would be that stupid. It must be a CIA-FBI-White House plot. Has to be. There is no way that James Earl Ray, the high-school dropout, Army throw-away, petty thief could stalk Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., kill the most influential civil rights leader of the era and evade an international manhunt for more than two months, only to be busted by Scotland Yard going through a customs checkpoint he wasn't supposed to be at.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson says it's a plot: "I have always believed that the government was part of a conspiracy, either directly or indirectly, to assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," he wrote in the forward to James Earl Ray's autobiography Who Killed Martin Luther King Jr.? Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young believes the government was responsible for King's death, as well. "I've always thought the FBI might be involved in some way," he said. "You have to remember this was a time when the politics of assassination was acceptable in this country. It was during the period just before Allende's murder. I think it's naïve to assume these institutions were not capable of doing the same thing at home or to say each of these deaths (King and the two Kennedys) was an isolated incident by 'a single assassin.' It was government policy."

Even Dr. King's family believes that Martin was killed as the result of a conspiracy involving government officials. Dexter King met with the man convicted of killing his father and later said he believed Ray was not the shooter.

James Earl Ray, passport photo
James Earl Ray,
passport photo

There are two issues here that need to be examined. First, did James Earl Ray kill Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, and second, was the assassination the culmination of a conspiracy to silence the leader of America's non-violent civil rights and anti-war movement? There are a number of different possible answers. Perhaps Ray was a patsy for a wide-reaching conspiracy. Maybe he was in Memphis on April 4 but didn't fire the shot. It could be that he was an unwitting pawn in a plan that involved agents of the highest levels of government, up to and including the Johnson White House.

Or it could be that a black-hating sociopath with delusions of grandeur managed to get himself close enough to Dr. King to fire a shot with a scope-equipped high-powered rifle that would have dropped an elk at the same distance.

In comparison to the earlier assassination of President Kennedy, the questions surrounding the murder of Dr. King are a little more clear cut. Witnesses (for the most part) do not quibble on the number of shots fired, or from the originating area. There are few credible conspiracies that claim multiple gunmen, and no evidence that more than one person was on hand in Memphis that day who planned to kill King. Conspiracy theorists must base their accusations on the word of Ray, who pled guilty to the murder in return for a guarantee from Tennessee authorities not to seek the death penalty. Once sentenced to 99 years, Ray immediately began retracting and changing his story that he acted alone.

On the other hand, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Johnson Administration were clearly on the record in opposing King's resistance to the Vietnam War and J. Edgar Hoover wanted King disgraced or rendered impotent by any means necessary. The comments of Young and Jackson do not seem as alarmist when one examines the record of harassment, slander and abuse government bodies accumulated in their pursuit of Dr. King. If Hoover wanted King taken out of the picture, could he have authorized assassination? As history has shown, with J. Edgar Hoover, the ends justified the means.

So, who killed Dr. King? Was it a conspiracy? Or was it a single, angry young man acting on his own hatred that ended the life of one of America's greatest leaders? After thirty years of investigations, theories and speculation, the evidence has pretty much all been gathered and it is possible to draw a conclusion that satisfies the reasonable observer.

 

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