In the five decades since Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead by an assassin at age 39, his children have worked tirelessly to preserve his legacy, sometimes with sharply different views on how best to do that. But they are unanimous on one key point: James Earl Ray did not kill Martin Luther King.
For the King family and others in the civil rights movement, the FBI’s obsession with King in the years leading up to his slaying in Memphis on April 4, 1968 — pervasive surveillance, a malicious disinformation campaign and open denunciations by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover — laid the groundwork for their belief that he was the target of a plot.
“It pains my heart,” said Bernice King, 55, the youngest of Martin Luther King’s four children and the executive director of the King Center in Atlanta, “that James Earl Ray had to spend his life in prison paying for things he didn’t do.”
Until her own death in 2006, Coretta Scott King, who endured the FBI’s campaign to discredit her husband, was open in her belief that a conspiracy led to the assassination. Her family filed a civil suit in 1999 to force more information into the public eye, and a Memphis jury ruled that the local, state and federal governments were liable for King’s death. The full transcript of the trial remains posted on the King Center’s website.
“There is abundant evidence,” Coretta King said after the verdict, “of a major, high-level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband.” The jury found the mafia and various government agencies “were deeply involved in the assassination. … Mr. Ray was set up to take the blame.”
But nothing changed afterward. No vast sums of money were awarded (the Kings sought only $100), and Ray was not exonerated.
King’s two other surviving children, Dexter, 57, and Martin III, 60, fully agree that Ray was innocent. And their view of the case is shared by other respected black leaders.
“I think there was a major conspiracy to remove Dr. King from the American scene,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a 78-year-old civil rights icon. “I don’t know what happened, but the truth of what happened to Dr. King should be made available for history’s sake.”
Andrew Young, the former U.N. ambassador and Atlanta mayor who was at the Lorraine Motel with King when he was shot there, agrees. “I would not accept the fact that James Earl Ray pulled the trigger, and that’s all that matters,” said Young, who noted that King’s death came after the killings of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X and just months before the slaying of Robert F. Kennedy.
“We were living in the period of assassinations,” Young said.
Conspiracies have long gripped the American imagination, from JFK’s assassination in 1963 to Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster’s suicide in 1993 to Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich’s slaying in 2016.
Dave Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of MLK, said that “the King children are part of a larger population of American people who need to believe that the assassination of a King or a Kennedy must be the work of mightier forces” rather than victims “of small-fry, lifetime losers.”
“People need to see something of a balance between effect and cause,” Garrow said. “That if something has a huge evil effect, it should be the result of a huge evil cause.”
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Even those who believe that Ray, who died in prison in 1998, killed King tend to think that he received assistance from someone, whether it was his two brothers or the FBI or the Mafia.
Because Ray suddenly pleaded guilty in 1969, less than a year after the shooting, there was no trial. The largest government investigation, led by the House Select Committee on Assassinations under chief counsel Robert Blakey, theorized in 1979 that Ray committed the killing in the hope of collecting a $50,000 bounty offered by supporters of then-presidential candidate George Wallace in St. Louis, where Ray’s brothers lived.
But there was no definitive evidence to prove the theory, and the Wallace supporters were dead by 1979. Blakey said recently he had tried to prove a conspiracy but could not. If the FBI or CIA was involved, they had destroyed the documentation of it by 1979, he said.
“I have no stake in our outcome,” Blakey said. “You come up with a better outcome, with evidence to support it, I’ll support your theory.” He remains adamant that Ray was the gunman but likely had help that should have been investigated in 1968 and was not.
John Campbell, who investigated the case for years in the Shelby County, Tennessee, district attorney’s office, said that Ray’s version of events “kept changing.” His office issued a report in 1998 saying Ray was responsible.
“I’m not saying he didn’t have help,” Campbell said. “But he didn’t have the FBI, the CIA, the Memphis police or the Mafia.”
After Coretta King and her family pleaded with President Bill Clinton in 1998 to reinvestigate the case, Attorney General Janet Reno assigned civil rights special counsel Barry Kowalski, who previously prosecuted the Los Angeles police officers in the Rodney King beating, to review the newest conspiracy allegations. In 2000, even after reviewing the results of the 1999 civil trial in Memphis, Kowalski concluded that Ray was guilty and that there was no government conspiracy.
Astride all this controversy for the last 40 years has been William Pepper, a New York lawyer and civil rights activist who knew and worked with King. Pepper first visited Ray in prison in 1978 along with Ralph Abernathy, one of King’s closest associates. Pepper became convinced of Ray’s innocence and continued to investigate the case even after Ray died.
Pepper wrote three books outlining the conspiracy, most recently “The Plot to Kill King” in 2016, which were largely ignored by the media.
He defended Ray in a mock trial on HBO in 1993 (Ray was found not guilty), and filed and tried the Memphis civil suit that found the government liable for King’s death.
He has spoken around the world to anyone who will listen, including recently at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where King was killed. Pepper was sued once for defamation, by an Army soldier he accused of participating in the conspiracy, and a South Carolina judge entered an $11 million default judgment against him in 2000.
In recent years, Pepper has tracked down witnesses in Memphis who support his theory of the case: that J. Edgar Hoover used his longtime assistant, Clyde Tolson, to deliver cash to members of the Memphis underworld, that those shadowy figures then hired a sharpshooting Memphis police officer, and that officer — not Ray — fired the fatal shot.
The King family has lauded Pepper repeatedly, and he was honored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for his “unceasing commitment in the pursuit of justice.”
“I think the people of this country are entitled to know the truth,” Pepper said. “I say that in the hope of creating an awareness of how this happened, and that the involvement of government in these events may cease with respect to other leaders who will emerge.”
And so after 50 years, the King assassination seems destined to remain mired in controversy, the subject of infinite debate over whether Ray was a lone gunman inspired by racism, a hired assassin aided by secret government forces, or simply a patsy manipulated to kill a civil rights hero.
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Ray was born in 1928 and grew up outside St. Louis. His chosen profession was theft and armed robbery, and after his third felony conviction in 1959, he was sentenced to 20 years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. He escaped from the prison in April 1967, and some believe he had help from prison authorities, as part of the opening stanza of the conspiracy.
Ray moved around while on the lam, staying in Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico and Canada over the next year. He has claimed that while in Montreal he met a man named Raul, of varying physical descriptions over the years, who enlisted him in several small gunrunning schemes, and instructed him to buy a rifle in Birmingham, Ala.
On the afternoon of April 4, Ray checked into a boardinghouse in Memphis, with a bar called Jim’s Grill on the first floor. He paid $8.50 for a week’s stay. The rear of the boardinghouse faced the Lorraine Motel across Mulberry Street.
King was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine outside room 306 when a single rifle bullet was fired into his lower jaw at 6:01 p.m. He died an hour later at St. Joseph’s Hospital. The rifle Ray had purchased in Birmingham was found near the front of the boardinghouse with Ray’s fingerprints on it. Those are about the only facts that aren’t in dispute.
According to the criminal justice system of the state of Tennessee, James Earl Ray fired the shot from the second-floor bathroom of the boardinghouse. He then grabbed some belongings in a blanket, stashed the rifle in it, left the building and dropped the bundle in the doorway of a nearby building.
He drove away in a white Ford Mustang before the area was barricaded, went to Atlanta and then to Canada and England before being arrested in July 1968.
Ray pleaded guilty to the murder of King nine months later, on March 10, 1969. He signed a detailed stipulation of facts to the shooting, having had weeks to review it, asking only that a reference to his activities for George Wallace be deleted.
In court, Ray answered the standard series of questions about whether he was knowingly and voluntarily admitting he committed murder. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors did not seek the death penalty and Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Officially: case closed.
Within days, Ray filed a motion to withdraw his plea, claiming he had been coerced by his attorney and the FBI. Three decades of legal machinations never succeeded in reopening the case, but they revealed new details and led to new theories of how King might have been killed.
At the same time, the misconduct of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI was coming to light. Hoover had ordered surveillance, wiretaps and listening devices placed in King’s rooms starting in 1963, apparently infuriated by King’s criticism of the FBI for not having black agents or investigating civil rights cases.
Recordings and photos of King having sex with women other than his wife were offered to reporters and government officials, often by Hoover himself, and sent to King associates. Hoover once told a group of reporters, on the record, that King was “the most notorious liar in the country.”
Coretta King and Abernathy, aware of the FBI campaign, immediately suspected FBI involvement after King’s death. But Ray’s sudden guilty plea stopped all official investigations.
Asked about the King family’s suspicions, an FBI spokesman responded in a statement that the government has revisited the assassination four times: “Findings from these reviews support the FBI’s conclusion that James Earl Ray, acting alone, fired a rifle once, fatally wounding Dr. King on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel.”
James Lawson, a Memphis pastor and civil rights institution who helped mentor King, said he began visiting Ray in the Memphis jail in 1969 when Ray complained about being held in solitary confinement. He continued to visit Ray until his death and presided over his funeral.
“There were things in Memphis that were suspicious and raised questions in my mind,” Lawson said. “I never saw those questions answered.”
Lawson assisted Pepper and the King family over the years in their investigation, during which Dexter King and Andrew Young participated in interviews with witnesses.
“I’m satisfied beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Lawson said, “that James Earl Ray neither pulled the trigger nor plotted to kill Martin Luther King.”
Ray began to claim that the man he knew only as Raul was present in Memphis on April 4, and that Ray himself was at a nearby gas station when the shot was fired. No one saw the actual shot fired. The screen from the bathroom window was found on the ground below.
Some witnesses, including then-New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell, said they saw a man moving in the thick bushes behind Jim’s Grill, below the bathroom. For reasons unknown, Memphis public works employees cut down the bushes and destroyed a possible crime scene the very next morning.
Ballistics tests could not prove that the rifle dropped outside the boardinghouse, a Remington .30-06 Gamemaster, either did or didn’t fire the fatal shot, because the gun did not create distinctive grooves on the bullet, as most guns do.
“That weapon was not the weapon,” Martin Luther King III said. “You’re going to kill somebody and then drop the gun right there?” Ray claimed that he had given the gun to Raul, but only Ray’s fingerprints were on the gun.
Pepper and his investigators worked for years to locate Raul and eventually they identified an autoworker from Yonkers, New York, as the man they believe manipulated Ray. The man denied any involvement and cooperated with Justice Department investigators in 1999, who found work records showing he could not have traveled widely to meet Ray in 1967 and ‘68. Pepper said the CIA could have fabricated the records.
Then Loyd Jowers, the owner of Jim’s Grill, began claiming publicly that he was involved in a conspiracy to kill King. He had consistently denied any knowledge of the case for a quarter-century, but now he alleged the gunman was a Memphis police officer who fired from the bushes behind the grill, then handed Jowers the murder weapon. Jowers stashed the rifle behind the bar and said it was later picked up by Raul and tossed in the Mississippi River.
More Memphis witnesses came forward, including a former girlfriend of Jowers, who said she saw him with the rifle shortly after the gunshot rang out, and saw him break it down and place it in the bar.
In 1997, Dexter King went with Pepper to meet Ray in prison, and was photographed shaking Ray’s hand. Pepper said Dexter King asked Ray, “Did you kill my father?” and that Ray answered, “No, I didn’t.” He said Dexter King told Ray, “We will do everything in our power to see that justice prevails.”
Dexter King called his family together, his brother Martin said in an interview, and urged them to file a civil suit against Jowers as a means of seeking the truth. A Shelby County jury heard more than 70 witnesses over 30 days, ruled that Jowers and unknown government entities were liable, and awarded the Kings $100.
The family wasn’t seeking money, just information. “For both our family and the nation,” Coretta King said after the verdict, “we had to get involved, because the system did not work.”
The verdict came as the Justice Department was reinvestigating the case because of Jowers’ claims and those of a former FBI agent who said he had found evidence in Ray’s car in 1968 linking him to Raul but had withheld it until 1997.
In 2000, the report authored by assistant attorney general Barry Kowalski found that Jowers had changed his story repeatedly and that neither he nor the ex-FBI agent were credible. Campbell said Jowers had been recorded saying that he would tailor his story for financial gain.
“Our thorough investigation,” Kowalski said recently, “just like four official investigations before it, found no credible or reliable evidence that Dr. King was killed by conspirators who framed James Earl Ray. Twenty years later, I remain absolutely convinced this well-supported finding is correct.”
The King family disagrees, with Martin King III adopting Pepper’s theory of Hoover directing the murder. “I believe that’s exactly what happened,” said Martin King III. “Hoover was so angry, he had hate in his heart. Certainly he hated Dad. He had a vehement hatred of folks of color.”
Not everyone in the Kings’ circle agrees with the full extent of Pepper’s investigation, but they agree that Ray was framed.
“It’s still a mystery to me,” Bernice King said. “I don’t believe James Earl Ray killed my father. It’s hard to know exactly who. I’m certainly clear that there has been a conspiracy, from the government down to the mafia … there had to be more than one person involved in all of this. I think it was all planned.”
On April 4, Bernice King will lead commemorative events in Atlanta, including a wreath laying at her father’s grave, a ceremony awarding Martin Luther King Peace Prizes, a reception for children and a March for Humanity through the city. Then, at 6:01 p.m., she will lead a bell-ringing at the exact moment of the shooting, 39 times for every year of her father’s life, certain that the person who killed him has never been caught.