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Who killed MLK?
And why does his family reject the court's verdict?
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in the head while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. An hour later he was pronounced dead by doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital in the Tennessee city.
The shooter fled the scene, but the sound of the shot indicated that it had been fired from the direction of a boarding house across the street from the motel. Police found a rifle and binoculars nearby. Both bore fingerprints, which matched prints on file for James Earl Ray, a forty-year-old native of Illinois who had been in and out of prison and was currently on the run after escaping prison several months earlier.
Notices went out for all to be on the lookout for Ray. The fugitive eluded capture until June, when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in London. He was extradited to the United States and returned to Tennessee.
Authorities there laid out the case against Ray, and he accepted a plea bargain. He confessed to the murder of King in exchange for the prosecutor's agreement not to request the death penalty.
Within days, however, Ray recanted his confession. And he began telling stories implicating others in the murder.
The district attorney refused to reopen the case, noting that Ray provided no evidence beyond his own obviously unreliable word. Ray went to prison and remained there until his death in 1998.
He continued to proclaim his innocence. Eventually he persuaded members of the King family to believe him. They demanded that the case be reopened. In the decade after the assassination, declassified documents revealed that the FBI had been engaged in a program of surveillance and dirty tricks against King. J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, was convinced that King was either a communist himself or unduly influenced by communism.
Members of the King family extrapolated from this evidence to the conclusion that the FBI or other government agency had orchestrated King's killing. "It pains my heart that James Earl Ray had to spend his life in prison paying for things he didn't do," said Bernice King, the youngest of King and Coretta Scott King's four children. Coretta King herself declared, "There is abundant evidence of a major, high level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband. . . . Mr. Ray was set up to take the blame."
This sentiment took hold among veterans of the civil rights movement. "I think there was a major conspiracy to remove Dr. King from the American scene," John Lewis declared. Andrew Young was certain those really responsible for the killing were still at large. "I do not accept the fact that James Earl Ray pulled the trigger, and that's all that matters," Young said.
The skeptics petitioned the government for a new investigation. Congress and law enforcement authorities obliged, but they turned up nothing newly persuasive. An investigator for the local district attorney observed that Ray's story kept changing. "I'm not saying he didn't have help, but he didn't have the FBI, the CIA, the Memphis police or the mafia," the investigator said. The FBI pointed out that it had gone over the same ground 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 4th, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel," the bureau's spokesman summarized.
The defenders of the Ray conviction realized they were fighting an impossible battle—the same battle critics of conspiracy theories always face. They were asked to prove a negative: the non-existence of a conspiracy. But while it's possible to prove the existence of something— by trotting out the thing in question or adducing positive evidence of its existence—it's rarely possible to prove non-existence. If you didn't find it, you can always be accused of not looking hard enough or in the right places.
The emotional basis of the skepticism of the King family and the leaders of the civil rights movement seems fairly clear. The great man at the head of the movement had been suddenly taken away. To accept that this had been accomplished by a small-time hood like James Earl Ray was to impugn King's historical importance.
Yet assassins, in American history, have generally been insignificant figures. John Wilkes Booth wasn't even the best actor in his own family. Charles Guiteau, who shot James Garfield, couldn't land a federal job. Leon Czolgosz, the killer of William McKinley, wanted to prove his cred as an anarchist. Lee Harvey Oswald defected from the U.S. Marine Corps to the Soviet Union before defecting back to America.
In truth, it is often the very insignificance of the assassins that pushes them toward high-profile murder. John Hinckley failed to kill Ronald Reagan, but his attempt was motivated by a desire to impress actress Jodie Foster. Small people hope to make themselves big by killing big people.
The strategy works. We know the assassins' names precisely because of the murders they committed. It doesn't take a genius to figure this out, Or a conspiracy.