Today, American banks, schools, and other businesses are closed to honor Civil Rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King now holds an exalted place in American history, a great leader who was cut down in his prime. However, when King was alive, many on the right — including then-head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover — detested him. Because of his Civil Rights activism, as well as his opposition to the Vietnam War and his Poor People’s Campaign for the rights of workers and the poor, he was seen as a radical leftist and accused of being a Communist (Matthew Dolezal has an interesting story on just this topic).
As part of their COINTELPRO operations, the FBI systematically harassed King and his family with constant surveillance, including tapping his phones and installing bugs in rooms where he was staying. They also ran particularly nasty smear campaigns against him, and even sent him a threatening letter pressuring him to kill himself.
Some went even further. Supporters of the rabid segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace offered a $50,000 bounty on his head, and the White Knights of Mississippi twice offered bounties of $100,000. So, in 1968, there was no shortage of people who wanted King dead.
On Thursday, April 4, 1968, King was in Memphis to lend his support to the city’s striking sanitation workers. He was staying at the Lorraine Motel downtown, one of the few integrated establishments in the Jim Crow era. He was staying in room 306 with his friend and fellow Poor People’s Campaign organizer Dr. Ralph Abernathy. That evening, he stepped out onto the balcony to speak with friends in the parking lot below. At 6:01 p.m., as he turned to go back into his room, a single bullet tore through his jaw and neck.
He was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he died an hour later.
No one saw who fired the shot, but some witnesses reported seeing a figure moving around in the bushes near a boarding house across the street.
Police went to the boarding house and found a bundle or basket containing a Remington Gamemaster .30–06, a pair of binoculars, and a newspaper with an article stating that King would be staying at the Lorraine. While ballistics tests on the rifle would prove inconclusive, the fingerprints on it were matched to an escaped convict named James Earl Ray.
James Earl Ray
Ray was born in 1928 in Alton, Illinois, and grew up outside of St. Louis. He was somewhat of a drifter, getting kicked out of the Army for drunkenness, then bouncing from one job to another. His primary vocations seemed to be theft and armed robbery. He was also a staunch segregationist.
In March of 1960, he was sentenced to 20 years in the Missouri State Penitentiary for robbing a string of grocery stores while on parole. However, in late April of 1967, he escaped in a bread box and went on the lam. A year later, he still hadn’t been caught.
On the afternoon of April 4, 1968, he rented a room at a boarding house just across Mulberry Street from the Lorraine Motel. The shared second-floor bathroom faced the balcony of the Lorraine. It was there, investigators believed, that Ray stood in the bathtub and fired the fatal shot.
After the shooting, Ray fled and went to Atlanta, then Canada, then the UK. After a 10-month manhunt, Ray was finally caught at Heathrow Airport in London. He had two fake Canadian passports on him.
Ray pled guilty to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to 99 years.
But within days, he recanted his confession, claiming it had been coerced. He claimed that he had been framed, that a man he’d met in Canada named “Raoul” had set the whole thing up. He said Raoul had directed him to purchase the rifle in Birmingham and to rent the room in Memphis. He also denied even being in the boarding house at the time of the shooting.
Considering the FBI’s treatment of King, and the fact that John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X had also been assassinated previously (and Robert F. Kennedy would meet a similar fate shortly afterwards), many did not believe Ray acted alone — if he even acted at all.
The public was increasingly losing trust in the official investigations into the deaths of both King and JFK. So, in 1976, the House voted to establish the House Select Committee on Assassinations, or HSCA. During their investigation, declassified information brought to light the depth of the FBI’s harassment of King, but no plot to kill him.
However, they did turn up something else.
An Art Heist Uncovers a Murder Plot
The story is circuitous (St. Louis Magazine covers it really well), but we can start with the fact that Ray’s brother, John Larry Ray, ran a bar in St. Louis called The Grapevine. The Grapevine was a regular hangout for white supremacists, including an attorney named Jack Sutherland. Sutherland led not just one, but three chapters of the notoriously racist John Birch Society. Later he became a big Wallace supporter.
The connection to the theft of several valuable pieces from the St. Louis Art Museum is a long one (again, you have to read the St. Louis Magazine article), but in tracking down all the players, investigators came to know Russell Byers. In Byers’ file, they found a memo written by an undercover FBI informant. In it, Byers was boasting that a local attorney — later identified as Sutherland — had offered to pay him between $10,000 and $20,000 to kill King. This memo had not been cross-indexed with the earlier King investigation.
However, the art-theft investigators did turn over the memo to the HSCA. The Committee brought Byers in to testify, and, based on his testimony, conducted an investigation into a possible St. Louis-based conspiracy to kill King.
A month after Byers’ testimony in front of the HSCA, his closest associate, only hours after walking into the FBI’s St. Louis field office, was found shot dead and burned nearly beyond recognition. Now Byers and others who might have had information were afraid for their lives.
One other person seemed to corroborate this story: a fellow inmate at the Missouri State Penitentiary, Donald Lee Mitchell. Mitchell had made a voluntary statement to the original investigators in 1968 that Ray, when making plans to escape prison in 1967, divulged that he was going to be paid $50,000 to kill King.
In fact, Ray escaped the day after his brother, John Larry, had come to the prison to visit and “talk about the Wallace campaign.” Remember, John Larry owned the bar where the Wallace supporters and other white supremacists hung out, and would have undoubtedly known about the bounty.
However, by the time of the HSCA, a decade had passed. Sutherland had been dead eight years, and Mitchell, having served his sentence, had disappeared and could not be found. The HSCA concluded that Ray had killed King with the expectation that he would collect the bounty, likely as the result of a conspiracy, but one which did not include the FBI.
Enter Loyd Jowers
That is where things sat for almost 20 years — some believing the case closed, others (including King’s family and friends) believing that the FBI had been involved, and that the HSCA had been essentially a cover-up.
In 1993, HBO aired a mock trial where Ray was found not guilty. Soon afterwards, a man named Loyd Jowers came forward, claiming he had been offered $100,000 to plan King’s assassination and to frame Ray for it. This conspiracy, Jowers said, included Memphis police officers, the Mafia and the mysterious “Raoul.”
Jowers owned Jim’s Grill, the restaurant on the first floor of the boarding house where Ray (allegedly) stayed. He claimed that it was actually a Memphis police officer named Frank Holt who killed King. Soon other witnesses came forward to corroborate parts of his story. It did seem to answer many questions, such as, why had Memphis public works employees cut down the bushes beneath the boarding-house window, destroying a crime scene, the day after the shooting? And why was the usual Memphis PD security detail for King — a high-profile man who was the target of multiple death threats — stripped of all its black officers that day?
William Pepper, a New York lawyer and civil rights activist who knew and worked with King, believes Jowers’ story (he had been Ray’s “defense attorney” in the HBO mock trial). His theory is that J. Edgar Hoover used his assistant, Clyde Tolson, to deliver money to people in the Memphis crime scene. Those people then hired a Memphis PD sharpshooter who actually fired the fatal shot.
In 1999, a year after Ray died in prison, the King family sued Jowers in civil court for wrongful death. They won.
Unfortunately, every one of these stories has holes. If Ray acted alone, how did this small-time thief manage to fly out of the US during a manhunt, then fly into the UK, and somehow get his hands on two fake Canadian passports?
On the other hand, Ray’s claim of being framed doesn’t hold up well, either. He claims he was never at the boarding house, but he can’t produce another believable alibi. His story about Raoul changed multiple times over the years, as did his description of Raoul. The one person the FBI tracked down who might have been Raoul — an auto mechanic — had solid alibis disproving that he could be the man Ray dealt with.
Jowers’ story is similarly flimsy. He waited 25 years after the murder to come forward, and his story also changed multiple times.
The HSCA’s conclusion seems to hold the most water, but even it isn’t airtight. There is no physical evidence to tie any of the alleged conspirators to the crime, and Ray did not have the large sum of money one would expect him to have if he’d been paid the bounty.
In 1998, Ray died in custody of liver failure. He was 70.
Sadly, since the principles are now all dead, we may never know what really happened, what series of events or actions took the life of such a great American. Perhaps the best way to honor him is to carry on his work on behalf of oppressed people everywhere.