Did James Earl Ray Really Kill Martin Luther King Jr.?

By: John Donovan  | 

gun site of Lorraine Motel
More than 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, there are still questions about whether James Earl Ray was really the one who killed him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

On April 3, 1968, the night before he was murdered, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke before a rapturous crowd in a packed church in Memphis, Tennessee. The speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," is one of the most quoted in the famed preacher's career.

In the roughly 43-minute address, an exhausted, under-the-weather King — he initially had asked his friend, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, to fill in for him, but later relented — covered many of the topics that had made him the foremost civil rights figure of the time. But it's the way King wrapped up his speech that is perhaps best known now, more than 50 years after his death.

King, who had traveled from his home in Atlanta earlier in the day to support sanitation workers involved in a bitter strike against the city, finished his speech to the crowd at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ like this:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?" King said to . "Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

He concluded in a crescendo: "And so I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

Did Martin Luther King Jr. know his assassination was imminent? That's one of a myriad of questions that have flourished in the years since King's murder, a death that now sometimes threatens to overshadow the civil rights icon's considerable legacy.

Martin Luther King jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. often gave fiery speeches, but one of his most well-known is his last speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," where he seems to foresee his own death just the night before he was killed.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

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A Fatal Shot, and More Questions

King was killed by a single bullet from a rifle at just after 6 p.m. April 4, 1968, as he stood on the breezeway outside his room at Memphis' Lorraine Motel. Two months later in London, an escaped criminal named James Earl Ray was arrested and charged by the FBI with the murder. Almost a year after the shooting, and after a complicated series of legal maneuvers that included fighting his extradition to the United States, Ray agreed to plead guilty, suggested that he was merely a player in a larger plot to kill King, and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Three days later, he recanted his statement. He was never granted a retrial.

The official, government-sanctioned version was that Ray waited in a shared bathroom on the second floor of a cheap boarding house across from the Lorraine until King appeared, fired a single round from a little more than 200 feet (60 meters) away, stashed his rifle in a nearby doorway, jumped in his Ford Mustang to drive to Atlanta, and then fled the country. He was, according to several different government investigations, the lone gunman.

Still, almost from the moment King fell, people have wondered whether Ray actually killed King, and if he did, whether he acted alone. Dozens of questions about the shooting remain today, including:

  1. Why was a weed-covered hill between the boarding house and the Lorraine Motel — a place where some people reported seeing smoke immediately after the shooting and a man fleeing the area, the Memphis equivalent to Dallas' grassy knoll — cleared by city workers just hours after King fell?
  2. Why were several Black firemen dismissed from their duty stations at a nearby firehouse the day of the killing?
  3. Why would Ray dump a rifle he bought, possibly laden with his fingerprints, in a conspicuous spot near the scene of the murder?
  4. What about the claim from Memphis restaurant owner Loyd Jowers that he paid a Memphis police officer to shoot King?
  5. Who was the mysterious "Raoul" that Ray claimed was involved in the shooting?
  6. Why were there no definitive findings matching the rifle to the bullet that killed King?
  7. How much importance should we assign to the fact that the FBI had continually harassed King before his death? FBI director J. Edgar Hoover hated King, once even publicly calling him "the most notorious liar in the country," and on several occasions launched investigations to dig up dirt on the civil rights leader. The FBI uncovered several extramarital trysts that King conducted and, at one point, wrote an anonymous letter to King suggesting that he commit suicide. Is that enough to believe, as the King family did, that the FBI conspired to kill King?
  8. Did King's outspoken criticism of the war in Vietnam, and his plans to hold a march later that year in Washington, D.C., play into some powerful entities, government or otherwise, wanting him dead?
Martin Luther King jr. funeral
Some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s family (from left) the late Rev. Alfred Daniel King, his late widow Coretta Scott King, and his children Bernice King, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King attend his funeral at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, April 9, 1968.
Santi Visalli/Archive Photos/Getty Images

At the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel (NCRM), those questions and others are raised for visitors to consider.

"What the museum aims to do, and what we definitely proceed to do, is that we remain neutral," says Ryan Jones, a museum educator at the NCRM. "We don't endorse either theory, either story. We help host the theories and all the subsequent investigations, we tell them as they were, and we allow our guests to determine on their own ... what happened on that fateful day."

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The Case for Conspiracy

For those closest to King — including his family — the most important questions have been settled. To them, it's clear that King was not killed by Ray but by a consortium of actors that may include federal, state and local government agencies, the Mafia, Jowers and another possible triggerman: Memphis Police Lieutenant Ed Clark.

James Earl Ray
James Earl Ray, his head bowed, was led to his cell by Shelby County Sheriff William Morris, after finally being extradited from London.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

That was the conclusion of a civil trial in 1999, after which the King family and many associates of the late leader lauded the unanimous verdict.

"Anyone who sat in on almost four weeks of testimony, with over 70 witnesses — credible witnesses, I might add, from several judges to other very credible witnesses — would know that the truth is here," MLK's son, Dexter, said after the trial. "The question now is, 'What will you do with that?' We as a family have done our part. We have carried this mantle for as long as we can carry it. We know what happened. It is on public record. The transcripts will be available ... [a]ny serious researcher who wants to know what happened can find out."

Others backed the Kings and the version uncovered at the civil trial.

"I think there was a major conspiracy to remove Dr. King from the American scene," the late Georgia congressman John Lewis told The Washington Post in 2018. "I don't know what happened, but the truth of what happened to Dr. King should be made available for history's sake."

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And the Case Against

That civil case, as much as the Kings may have wished it so, was not the final word. Not long before the civil case went to trial, King's widow, Coretta Scott King, asked President Bill Clinton to look further into the assassination. In August 1998, Clinton's Justice Department, under then-Attorney General Janet Reno, opened a new investigation.

In June 2000, after conducting more than 200 witness interviews, reviewing tens of thousands of pages of records, and conducting scientific testing and analysis of documentary evidence, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it findings. It said the allegations by Jowers in the civil case — in addition to several other charges that pointed responsibility away from Ray, including one by former FBI agent Donald Wilson — were unfounded, rife with falsehoods and inconsistencies.

"Our investigation of these most recent allegations, as well as several exhaustive previous official investigations, found no reliable evidence that Dr. King was killed by conspirators who framed James Earl Ray," the report states. "Nor have any of the conspiracy theories advanced in the last 30 years, including the Jowers and the Wilson allegations, survived critical examination."

Among the previous investigations was a congressional inquiry in 1979 by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which concluded that Ray was the shooter, but that he likely killed King for money as part of a conspiracy. According to that investigation, though, the plot was not spearheaded by the Mafia or the FBI, but instead by two racist St. Louis businessmen who at one time allegedly offered a $50,000 bounty for anyone who would assassinate King.

James Earl Ray
In August 1978, James Earl Ray appeared before the House Assassination Committee in Washington, D.C., where he testified that he did not kill Martin Luther King Jr.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

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The King Legacy

Several books, including three by King family friend and lawyer William F. Pepper, make the case for a conspiracy to kill King. Others, including "Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.," finger Ray for the murder and absolve the government for any allegations of conspiracy.

Pre-COVID-19, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel hosted more than 300,000 visitors a year. The museum is dedicated to the entire struggle for equal rights, beginning with slavery and through such seminal events as the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the Freedom Rides.

Yet some of its most popular exhibits, not surprisingly, are King-related: Room 306, where he spent his last night; the spot in the building across the street where Ray allegedly fired the fatal shot; the rifle that Ray allegedly used; and the Ford Mustang in which he made his alleged getaway. The museum also has an interactive timeline of the civil rights struggle that includes a breakdown of the final days of King and the lingering questions that surround his assassination.

"Dr. King was en route to Washington, D.C.," the NCRM's Jones says of King's post-Memphis itinerary. "He planned to march with 500,000 Black and white poor people, and he made the comment very shortly before his death that if America continued to give its financial assets to the Vietnam War, America would go to hell."

It was a comment that didn't sit well with a government trying to win a war that was becoming increasingly unpopular, and it furthered his reputation among his enemies that he was anti-American.

"The forces were very much against him in the climate at the time of his death," Jones says.

Did King's life work — striving for civil rights, aiding the poor, speaking out against war — lead to his death? Did King, the night before, see it coming?

Multiple investigations have been conducted, multiple books written, countless arguments made.

The answers to what truly happened that day in Memphis? It's anybody's call.

Lorraine Motel
The Lorraine Motel room No. 306, where Martin Luther King was assassinated April 4, 1968, now stands as a permanent memorial to the civil rights leader.
Library of Congress

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