THE ASSASSINATION OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. returned to Memphis at the invitation of his friend and mentor, civil rights leader Reverend James Lawson, Jr., to continue his support for the Sanitation Workers’ Strike for better working conditions and fair wages.
That evening, King gave his last, and one of his most inspired, speeches. It was also his most prophetic: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
The next day, at 6:01 in the evening, King was standing outside his room on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, speaking with people in the courtyard below, when he was shot in the lower right side of his face by a single rifle bullet. He died one hour later.
THE OFFICIAL STORY
The State of Tennessee, supported by the U.S. Justice Department, claimed that King’s assassin was “a racist loner” named James Earl Ray. They alleged that Ray fired the fatal shot from the second-floor bathroom window of a rooming house across the street from the Lorraine Motel and then rushed to his room, wrapped up his belongings—including the rifle—in a bedspread, ran off, and dropped the bundle in a nearby doorway. He then drove his white Ford Mustang to Atlanta and, with several aliases and fake passports, fled to Canada, then to England, then to Portugal and back to England, where he was eventually arrested at Heathrow Airport by Scotland Yard on June 8, 1968, and extradited to the U.S.
There were many obvious problems with the above story. To begin with, people who knew Ray well said he was not a racist; he even had a black girlfriend. And rather than being a loner, he was quite social and had recently taken dance lessons and bartending classes. Nor was he a Southerner, as many in the media claimed; he was born and raised in Illinois.
As with the assassinations of President Kennedy and his brother, Robert (two months after King), all evidence points to the construction of Ray as a patsy to take the blame for a government-directed assassination. James Earl Ray, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted killer of Robert Kennedy, bear striking resemblances in the ways they were chosen and moved into position to be considered the designated “assassins.”
There were also disturbing issues with Ray’s attorney, Percy Foreman, who had a history representing government and Mafia figures such as Jack Ruby in cases where the government wanted to silence certain defendants. Ray was under extraordinary pressure from Foreman to plead guilty; he was even told that if he didn’t, he’d get the electric chair and the government would go after his father and brother as accomplices. Foreman also offered Ray an illegal financial payoff and misled him into thinking he could get a new trial after pleading guilty.
Ray initially acquiesced and entered what’s known as an “Alford Plea,” in which the defendant asserts his innocence but admits that the evidence presented by the prosecution would likely be sufficient to persuade a judge or jury to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison and the case seemed closed. However, the day after sentencing, Ray fired his attorney and, a few days later, tried to retract his plea. Ray spent the rest of his life seeking a new trial, which was never granted, and he proclaimed his innocence until his death almost 30 years later.
In the decades after the assassination, many discoveries were made concerning the actual events of that fateful day that indicated disturbing errors in the official version.
In the coming months the TRC will be publishing a report the tells the story of what really happened that day.