It occurred fewer than 5 years after the murder of the 35th president of the United States at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, during the era of disillusionment and mistrust that his assassination provoked. And it was followed within 2 months by the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, presidential hopeful and bearer of the standard of hope that many believed had been torn asunder by his brother’s assassination. Thus the optimism of the 1960s was killed by a handful of bullets, and trust in our government was forever diminished by the persistent questions of who was really behind these slayings. And of course you’ve heard plenty of conspiracy theories about the JFK assassinations, from the plethora of books and films that explore it. You have likely heard quite a lot about the RFK assassination as well; in fact, the creators of podcast giant Crimetown recently produced a fantastic mini-series on it called the RFK Tapes. But there appear to be fewer books and less media attention generally on the assassination that occurred between the two Kennedy assassinations. The victim of this assassination was a champion of the marginalized, so this may reflect a further historical disregard for him and those he represents. I am writing, of course, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., firebrand and spearhead of the American Civil Rights Movement. His assassination differed from that of the two Kennedys in several regards. Aside from simple differences of race, King, while a political figure, was not a politician. He was not a candidate for the presidency; he was the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a preacher and activist, a symbol of non-violence and proponent not only of equality and social justice but of peace and harmony. After his murder, an international manhunt commenced, concluding in the arrest at Heathrow Airport in London of a white Missourian named James Earl Ray. This accused assassin accepted responsibility for King’s death in a guilty plea, but over the course of the next 30 years, he fought for a new trial and encouraged the conspiracy theories that swirled around the crime. By the time of his death, incredibly, he had convinced even those closest to Dr. Martin Luther King of his innocence, and today, many still believe he was a patsy in a nefarious and well-planned plot. But we know, readers, that an idea being popular or even prevalent doesn’t make it true.
Dr. King had not planned to visit Memphis, Tennessee, in March of 1968. At the time, he was busy planning a march on Washington, the Poor People’s Campaign, meant to unite poverty-stricken populations across racial lines. But recent events in Memphis drew his attention. The predominately African-American sanitation workers had gone on strike over poor pay and lack of benefits, driven to action after two workers were accidentally crushed to death in a garbage truck and the city refused to provide any compensation to their bereaved families. The impasse reached during their strike precipitated the city’s first civil rights march, which ended in violence between marchers and police after a police car rolled over a marcher’s foot. When Dr. King came to speak at the strike headquarters on March 18th, he was met by 15,000 people, and despite all his plans and busy schedule, he agreed to return later that month to lead them in another march. However, upon his return, before he and other members of the SCLC could hold their planned workshops on non-violent resistance with the Memphis protesters, a new element of violent protesters had invaded the city, rioting, looting and starting fires. 4,000 National Guardsmen were sent in, and three hundred rioters were arrested. King was distraught, but not defeated. Holding a press conference, he announced that he would return within a few days to lead a non-violent march.
After a brief time at home in Atlanta, the time had come to fly back to Memphis. It was April 3rd, and when his friend Xernona Clayton came to pick him up and drive him to the airport, his children began to behave strangely, begging him not to go, almost as if they had some premonition about what would befall him on his trip. Then in another ominous sign, once he had boarded his plane, it remained on the tarmac and King waited as they searched the plane from nose to tail, for a bomb threat had been made. Eventually, the plane took off, and King joked that it looked like he wouldn’t be killed after all, prompting his friends to assure him that no one was going to kill him. Upon arrival in Memphis, though, another dark portent arrived in the form of their car and driver, which had been provided by a funeral home. That night, King had turned in, but a phone call roused him. It turned out that some 2,000 people had gathered at the strike headquarters hoping to see the newly arrived Dr. King speak. Reluctantly, King dressed and made his way there. His friend, SCLC Program Director Reverend Ralph Abernathy, delivered a grand, impromptu introduction for him that has since been likened to a eulogy, and then Martin Luther King, Jr., took the pulpit. Based on the content of the now famous speech he delivered that night, it is clear that death was on his mind. He had faced it throughout his career, in countless states where he had gone to confront systemic racism and violence as well as to curb the rioting of his own brothers and sisters. In his speech, he spoke of one incident in particular, in which a deranged woman had stabbed him at a book signing. He quoted the letter of a little white girl who had written him thankful he had not sneezed, remarking that if he had sneezed he would have died. And he listed all of the accomplishments in the Civil Rights Movement that he would not have been around for if he had sneezed. Then, uncharacteristically, he remarked upon risks to his life that he may still face, expressing a sense of peace tinged by defiance. Watching the speech is a remarkable experience, especially knowing its context. King steps suddenly away from the microphone to sit back down, seemingly overcome with emotion, collapsing into Reverend Abernathy’s arms looking almost shocked. He seems to have truly confronted his death, facing his fear and overcoming it. The next day, he is described as being in a far more hopeful and joyous mood than he had been in some time. Before the end of that day, Dr. King would be dead, his life taken before he even reached his fortieth year.
This man, who inspired and outraged the world, was born on January 15, 1929, to a family of preachers, and his name was actually Michael. For generations, members of his family had served as the pastors of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, first his maternal grandfather, then his own father. When he was six years old, his father decided to change both their names; they would be known from then on as Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr., after the Great Reformer. From a young age, Martin Jr. showed himself to be devoted to non-violence, turning the other cheek when bullies brutalized him at school or when he encountered the scorn of bigots. Not to say that he was a preternaturally mature or saintly character as a child. He was also a bit of a scamp, an innocent prankster, tying his mother’s furs to a stick and thrusting them through bushes to scare passersby. He loved board games and ice cream and was less than enthusiastic about washing dishes and reciting bible verses, skirting the latter chore by choosing John 11:35, the shortest verse in the bible, in which Jesus weeps. He was indeed precocious, however, when it came to his intellect and education. He breezed through high school over the course of only two years and entered college at 15. Early in his college years, it is apparent that Martin Luther King, Jr., was already wrestling with what he would later call “the race problem.” This is evident in a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution that he wrote at just 17 years old. In it, he censured people who “raise the scarecrow of social mingling and intermarriage” when the question of racial equality is discussed, saying, “We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: The right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability; equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and good manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.” During those years, he also became interested in Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on Civil Disobedience and “became convinced then that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” In grappling with the problems his race faced, he began to consider how he might best contribute to a solution, and that was when he considered the church. He explains his reasoning most clearly himself: “I had been brought up in the church and knew about religion, but I wondered whether it could serve as a vehicle to modern thinking. I wondered whether religion, with its emotionalism in Negro churches, could be intellectually respectable as well as emotionally satisfying.” So he applied himself to following in his father’s footsteps. Graduating with a sociology degree at 19, he immediately began preaching at Ebenezer Baptist with his father and continued his education, earning his theology degree at 22 and entering graduate studies in theology at Boston University, where he earned his doctorate at just 26 years old. His father did not appreciate his more cerebral style of preaching, nor did some of his associates understand some of his allusions to Thoreau and Nietzsche, https://theundefeated.com/features/hbo-king-in-the-wilderness-reveals-the-loneliness-of-martin-luther-king-last-years/ but all doubts about the efficacy of his approach evaporated when in the mid-fifties he helped organize and lead numerous historical civil rights protests.
The same year he earned his PhD, King became involved with Rosa Parks and the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery in organizing the bus boycotts and establishing the Montgomery Improvement Association to protest segregation. Within a month, he was receiving threats and facing angry crowds. His home was bombed. But before the year was out, bus segregation was defeated in the courts, and King himself rode on the unsegregated transportation system. His success in Alabama led to his appointment as chair of the Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, as African American ministers across the South sought out his guidance in making strides in their own states, and it is this organization that King would transform into the SCLC. He was thrust into sudden fame, appearing on the cover of Time in 1957, and during the next few years meeting Vice-President Nixon, President Eisenhower, and presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy, travelling abroad to meet foreign dignitaries and the followers of Mohandas Ghandi, and giving national addresses—his first, a plea for enfranchisement, given before the Lincoln Memorial. Meanwhile, his civil rights work continued. In Atlanta, he participated in a department store sit-in and was arrested. He was arrested twice more in ’61 and ’62 during segregation protests in Georgia. Then in 1963, he faced fire hoses and attack dogs in Birmingham and led 200,000 marchers on Washington, where he delivered his most famous speech. As if in response to the historic demonstration, 2 weeks later, a bomb killed four children at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and King attended the funeral service to eulogize them. Two months later, JFK, with whom King had been working to advance the cause of civil rights, was gunned down in Dallas. Following the assassination, Dr. King began working with President Lyndon B. Johnson, a collaboration that would eventually bear fruit in the form of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and in recognition of all his tireless and fearless activism, King received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite all this progress, King still saw a long and hard road ahead. During an attempted march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, he and his marchers were met with violence, a day remembered as Bloody Sunday. And later that year, King confronted racism that was also tied up with economic issues when the riots erupted in Watts, California. He traveled there to preach non-violence, but he was met with scorn by some who saw lawlessness as their only recourse and heckled him during his pleas for peaceful resistance. Therefore it wasn’t only white racists by whom he was met with resistance in that turbulent period, as he entered a new phase in the SCLC’s struggle for change. Learning from what he saw in California, he expanded the scope of their activism beyond segregation, tackling the problem of slums and inequality in housing practices and education in Chicago in 1966. In the process, he met resistance from black community leaders as well, like Reverend Henry Mitchell. Many African American ministers in Chicago liked the system the way it was, being that they wielded power in the community through the patronage of the mayor, Richard Daley, who ran the city through machine politics. This was by no means the first time Dr. King had encountered criticism from members of his own race. At the beginning of his career, racial separatist Malcolm X had strongly criticized Dr. King’s non-violent approach, and after Watts, it seemed that other elements of the civil rights movement were also beginning to turn away from his message of peaceful protest. In Mississippi, young activist Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee began to express disillusionment with non-violence despite his organization’s name. He began to call for a show of strength from the black community, a push for so-called “Black Power” in opposition to the racist creed of “White Power.” King stood with Carmichael and marched beside him, but he never endorsed his message, instead preaching his consistent message of non-violence and racial alliance, not conflict.
Finally, a year before his death, answering the entreaties of many despite the reservations of many others, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began to speak out against the war in Vietnam. To King, it would be hypocrisy to protest violence at home when our country acted as a purveyor of violence abroad. In 1967, he identified three evils in society. The first was racism, which he had fought his entire career. The second was poverty, which he had come to realize was hopelessly entangled with the race issue. The third he acknowledged was militarism. He encountered stiff backlash from quarters both expected and unexpected after opposing the Vietnam War, as he began organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. Thus when called to Memphis in March of ’67, he struggled to sustain his hope and confidence, but those around him on his final day saw a change in his disposition after delivering his Mountaintop speech, as though he were renewed with purpose and had exorcised the fears and doubts that plagued him. In fact, he was downright playful, engaging in a pillow fight with his friends in their room at the Lorraine Motel and looking forward to a dinner of real soul food at a friend’s house. Unbeknownst to them, across the street from the Lorraine, past some bushes, a wall and an embankment, at a cut-rate rooming house full of drunk and infirm tenants, a thin white man calling himself John Willard had checked in. During the next hour or so, tenants remember hearing someone stalking back and forth between a room and the shared bathroom at the end of the hall, which had a clear line of sight from its window to the Lorraine, and tenants who tried to use the bathroom during this hour found it always occupied. At approximately 6:01 p.m., the tenants heard what sounded like the pop of a firecracker, and on the balcony of the Lorraine, little more than 200 feet from the rooming house’s bathroom window, Martin Luther King, Jr., collapsed. A .30-06 bullet had shattered his jaw, entered his neck, and opened his jugular vein. Despite attempts by his friends to stop the bleeding and rush him to medical care, the single shot fired that day killed Dr. King.
Police were on the scene immediately, as they happened to be ensconced at a nearby fire station keeping King and his entourage under surveillance. They went to the Lorraine first, where witnesses indicated that they believed the shot had come from the direction of the boardinghouse. Converging on the building, they found other witnesses who had seen a man leaving the building with a bundle, which he had abandoned at a storefront before fleeing in a white Mustang. In the bundle, they found a rifle, bullets, clothing, a radio, binoculars, and a toiletry bag, and in the rooming house bathroom, they found the window screen pushed out, the tub moved under the window, and a scuff mark on the sill. In Mr. John Willard’s room, they found a chair by an open window and binocular straps on the floor. Not ten minutes had passed since the shooting before police had a description of both the suspect and his vehicle, but from the rooming house, it was quite possible to have driven out of state within that time frame. Authorities changed all traffic lights to red in order to slow the suspect’s escape, but in an egregious failing, they did not establish road blocks or extend their all-points bulletin to neighboring states. Meanwhile, a CB radio operator led police on a wild goose chase, claiming to be in a high speed pursuit of the white Mustang. This hoax, in addition to the fact that a large portion of the police force did not engage in the hunt because of the growing threats of rioting, contributed to the assassin’s escape.
As the killer, it was assumed, had crossed state lines, the FBI took over the manhunt, while riots broke out across the country. Tracing the rifle as well as a laundry mark on the discarded clothing, they soon had a number of aliases other than John Willard, including the name John S. Galt, all for a man matching the suspect’s description. Then a white Mustang was reported abandoned in Atlanta by a man matching the same description. It was registered to one Eric Starvo Galt, connecting the Mustang to the abandoned bundle containing the rifle, garage service and tourist visa stickers showed the Mustang had been in Mexico and Los Angeles during the last year. Fiber evidence further indicated that the Eric Galt who drove the car had been in the rooming house across from the Lorraine, and as they traced his movements in California previous to the assassination, they came up with a photo of him from a bartending school he had attended in LA. The seller of the rifle thereafter picked that photo out of a lineup to identify him as the purchaser of the firearm. Finally, a lead on Galt’s whereabouts came their way when a money order purchased in California was used by an Eric Galt for a correspondence course in locksmithing that had been completed in Montreal, Canada. When they investigated Galt’s rooming house lodgings in Montreal, they found a map of Atlanta on which Ebenezer Baptist Church, SCLC headquarters, and the King family residence had been circled. The manager of the rooming house also identified Galt’s photo from among others. Fingerprints from the bundle items and from the map found in the room in Montreal eventually came up as belonging to one James Earl Ray, a career thief and escaped prisoner from Missouri State Penitentiary. Now with a real name and more photos, the FBI put Ray on the Most Wanted list, went to the press and disseminated wanted posters all over North America. Eventually, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, through a painstaking search of passport applications, connected Ray to another alias, Ramon Sneyd, and further traced his activities under that alias to a travel agency that had booked him on a flight to London. So the manhunt went international, while back at home, on June 5th, the country suffered yet another horrifying tragedy in the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Two days later, James Earl Ray turned up at Heathrow airport, trying to use his false Canadian passport to travel to Brussels. He was detained for having a handgun without a permit. More than 2 months after Dr. King’s assassination, the chief suspect in his murder was caught and awaiting extradition.
From the beginning, conspiracy theories abounded. Dubious informants claimed that Ray had escaped to South America with the CIA or to Cuba aboard a yacht, or that like Knight Rider, he had driven his Mustang into a moving truck and was being harbored by the Ku Klux Klan. JFK conspiracy theorists asserted that Ray greatly resembled one of the Three Tramps, the unidentified vagrants photographed at Dealey Plaza, while white supremacist groups claimed that the real people behind the killing were the SCLC themselves, unhappy with King’s leadership, or perhaps militant black youth disillusioned with King’s insistence on non-violence. To others, the likely culprits were the mafia or the FBI or perhaps both! Among the most vocal supporters of conspiracy claims was Ralph Abernathy himself, who spoke for others in the SCLC and for King’s family in demanding further investigation. Conspiracy theories multiplied and grew ever more specific after Ray began to talk to a writer, William Bradford Huie. Long before his trial was set to start, Huie began publishing a series of articles in Look magazine detailing James Earl Ray’s claims that a man named Raoul had manipulated him, maneuvered him to Memphis, and arranged for him to take the fall for a murder he didn’t commit. On Ray’s 40th birthday, during a special hearing ahead of his trial, he pleaded guilty on his lawyer’s advice, but he insisted that he was only “legally” guilty, and that he did not accept sole responsibility for the crime, actually dropping the word “conspiracy” to the judge. Within hours, Dr. King’s widow, Coretta, released a statement confirming that she did not believe Ray had acted alone and demanding that authorities continue their investigation until all those responsible had been brought to justice. Within days, Ray recanted his guilty plea, for the rest of his life, he fought to win a new trial and convince the world of his innocence. Even today, many are inclined to believe him, subscribing to some conspiracy scenario or another. But how logical and credible are these theories? Keep an eye out for the next part in this series as we examine the legend of Raoul.
Posner, Gerald. Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Random House, 1998.