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A Racial Crime: The Assassination of MLK

More than thirty-five years after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King polls have indicated that the truth about the murder is still unclear for the majority of the American people. Despite government investigations and extensive research by writers who have concluded that no evidence is available to support the claims made by the conspiracy advocates, the case remains one of America’s great whodunnits.

Doubts about James Earl Ray, Dr. King’s lone assassin, arose almost immediately after the Civil Rights leader was fatally shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in the southern city of Memphis.From the start, during King’s funeral, his aides voiced suspicions that a conspiracy was responsible for their leader’s death.

Following Ray’s quick plea of guilty during his 1969 trial and his outburst in court in which he insisted he had been part of a conspiracy, it was open season for conspiracy theories of various kinds. Conspiracy advocates, who never accepted the conclusion that a lone assassin killed JFK, refused to accept the official version of the King assassination which was provided by the FBI and the Memphis authorities.

After Ray was convicted the assassin claimed he was forced to plead guilty by his lawyer Percy Foreman. There developed a feeling that the American people had been robbed of a proper trial in which all issues surrounding the tragedy had been thoroughly examined. Furthermore, the fact that no one had actually seen Ray shoot King was a problem, and some witnesses were not consistent in their stories. The circumstantial and ballistics evidence provided opportunities for Ray’s defenders to claim that there was ‘reasonable doubt’ as to the alleged assassin’s guilt. And enough unanswered questions existed which allowed conspiracy theorists to present doubt about the prosecution’s case.

As the 1970s progressed the King conspiracy theories became accepted by a majority of Americans especially after Senate inquiries into the activities of the FBI disclosed that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had carried out a vendetta against the Civil Rights leader in the 1960s.The many discrepencies, anomalies, contradictory witness statements and rumors that others had been involved in the crime gave sufficient reason to reinvestigate the case. In the mid-70s the United States House of Representatives initiated a congressional investigation (HSCA) into the assassination of Dr. King and concluded, in 1979, that James Earl Ray had been the assassin but there was a likelihood he had been part of a conspiracy which had been planned by a group of right-wing Southerners.

However, Justice Department officials, responding to the HSCA’s investigation, could find no solid evidence with which to charge any suspects. The two suspects who were named by the HSCA, wealthy businessmen who were racially inspired to offer a bounty on King’s head, had died in the early 1970s.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Internet websites continued to promote the conspiracy theories. They successfully persuaded a new generation of Americans that James Earl Ray was likely innocent. In the early 1990s Memphis prosecutors believed the conspiracy controversy seemed to be dying down, until 1993 when a television company broadcast the made-for-TV mock trial that found Ray not guilty. That, said the prosecutors, brought conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork. Then Loyd Jowers, the owner of Jim’s Grill, the cafe situated below Ray’s rooming house behind the Lorraine motel, claimed he was paid $100,000 to hire an assassin - and the man hired was not Ray.

In 1995 Ray’s London-based attorney, William Pepper said his client was innocent. The conspiracy to kill King, Pepper claimed, was organized by the American government. Government agents gave the contract to the head of organised crime in New Orleans who solicited the assistance of a mafia member in Memphis to handle the arrangements. The Memphis Mafia boss then hired Jowers to handle the payoff and dispose of the murder weapon. A U.S. Army sniper squad was in place to shoot King if the Mafia hit failed. Pepper alleged that the FBI, CIA, the media, Army Intelligence and state and city officials helped cover up the assassination. In the late 90s Pepper claimed to have found Ray’s handler, the mysterious Raoul, (now re-named ‘Raul’ by Pepper). Raul was a Portuguese immigrant living in New York State.

In the mid to late 1990s a number of events helped to keep the King assassination in the public eye. In 1997 ballistics tests on the rifle used in the shooting proved inconclusive. In the same year the youngest son of Martin Luther King sat face to face with James Earl Ray to listen to Ray’s explanation of what happened to his father. With the blessings of King’s widow Coretta Scott King and the other King children, Dexter King shook James Earl Ray’s hand and professed belief in his innocence. “I just want to ask you for the record” Dexter King said, “Did you kill my father?” “No, I didn’t, no,” replied Ray in a quavering voice. Then Ray added, “But, like I say, sometimes these questions are difficult to answer...sometimes you have to make your own evaluation and maybe come to the conclusion. I think that could be done today, but not 30 years ago...” Dexter King declared, “As awkward as it may seem, I believe you, and my family believes you... and we will do everything in our power to see you prevail.” Many Americans were shocked by the King/Ray meeting. Pulitzer Prize winning King biographer David Garrow described Dexter King’s support for Ray "egregious" and "embarrassing."

The greatest boost to the legitimacy of the King conspiracy theories came in the summer of 1998 when the King family met with President Clinton and persuaded him to reopen the investigation. Attorney General Janet Reno said she had directed her department to review recent allegations by a former FBI agent, Donald Wilson, that a note had been found proving the existence of the mysterious Raoul. They were also asked to investigate the claim by a Memphis restaurant owner Loyd Jowers which suggested that Ray was part of a larger conspiracy. The team of investigators appointed by Reno had no connection to the FBI. The DOJ Report was released in June 2000. It rejected all of Pepper’s conspiracy claims and provided evidential proof to support the team’s conclusions.

During the period when the Justice Department had been investigating the new allegations of conspiracy the King family sued Jowers in a wrongful death lawsuit. During the 1999 trial Pepper repeated the claims he had made in his 1995 book. The jury, which consisted of six black and six white jurors, took three hours to reach their verdict of conspiracy involving Jowers. This was hardly surprising, considering that Jowers’ lawyer never disputed the contentions of the King lawyers. As the jury heard no evidence to rebut the conspiracy theory, it was inevitable they would return a verdict favorable to Pepper and the King family. The trial was, effectively, bogus.

From the start Pepper’s courtroom allegations were viewed by many commentators as ludicrous, dependent as they were on the stories of many discredited witnesses who did not reveal their far-fetched tales until many years after the assassination.

Pepper never presented any credible evidence that would have supported his allegations. Conveniently, much of the evidence he provided was curiously absent including the rifle he alleged was used to shoot King (at the bottom of the Mississippi River), the Memphis Police Department shooter (dead before his accusers went public), the Mafia organizer of the conspiracy (dead before his accusers found evidence of his role in the crime), photographs showing James Earl Ray did not shoot King (they have never surfaced), members of an army sniper team (anonymous and "living in another country") and their purported leader, whom Pepper mistakenly named.

Innocent events - the so-called "second Mustang," the damaged scope on the rifle found at the scene of the crime, policemen dropping from the wall opposite the Lorraine Motel, Reverend Kyles’s inartful use of language to describe his actions shortly before King was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel ("Only as I moved away so he could have a clear shot…"), the innocent statements made by the Portuguese immigrant’s daughter that the government had helped her family - all became part of Pepper’s malevolent conspiracy jigsaw puzzle which distorted the truth about the assassination. As visiting scholar at the American Academy Of Arts and Sciences, David Greenburg wrote, “Despite multiple debunkings these [conspiracy] fantasies endure…. a crackpot named William F. Pepper has convinced King’s entire family that the US Government, including President Lyndon Johnson, was responsible for his death.…Conspiracy Theorists adopt the trappings of scholarship, touting irrelevant titles and credentials. They burrow into the arcana of their topics and inundate potential acolytes with a barrage of pedantic detail. Rather than build a case from evidence, conspiracists deny the available evidence, maintaining that appearances deceive. Rather than admit to inconvenient facts, they dismiss them as lies , making their own theories irrefutable.”

What became unfortunate about this case was the way in which Pepper stopped at nothing to malign innocent participants who had been caught up in his quest to prove a non-existent and far-fetched conspiracy organized by the United States Government. He disgracefully pointed the finger of guilt at not only Reverend Kyles but also accused the widow of a Memphis Police Department conspirator of having lied about her husband’s role in the conspiracy. Raul, the innocent Portuguese immigrant, had his life turned upside down by Pepper’s desire to implicate him in a plot. Pepper displayed no guilt in accusing them of criminal acts, perjury in the first instance and murder in the second. He also accused King assassination authors Gerold Frank and George McMillan of having sinister ties to the FBI and/or CIA, implying they conspired with the government to hide the truth or had the wool pulled over their eyes when they investigated the King murder. He even gave credence to one of his star witnesses, Glenda Grabow, a JFK conspiracy fantasist who maligned the character of LBJ aide Jack Valenti by describing him as a pornographer. Instead of showing her the door he enlisted her as a Jowers Trial witness. As Pepper’s former investigator, Ken Herman, told BBC documentary makers, “Pepper is the most gullible person I have ever met in my life”.

Pepper’s thesis is manifestly absurd. The idea that the American government had King executed means that high officials of the Johnson Administration were prepared to risk riot and arson in order to attain the elimination of a single individual. It is inconceivable that Johnson officials would have failed to see that the murder of a prominent African-American leader would have led to this inevitable outcome. Considering all that had happened in the previous four years, including the terrible destruction and rioting that occurred in major cities across America, his allegations become preposterous.

The true facts about the assassination are far removed from the exaggerations and speculative accounts of the conspiracy-minded. Every decision and every action by James Earl Ray in the year leading up to the assassination was taken by Ray. No credible evidence exists that would indicate he was used as a patsy or was instructed to participate in the crime. Ray researched the rifle, the ammunition and the telescopic sight. Ray bought the Mustang, had it serviced, rented the rooms on his journeys, made his own telephone calls, bought his own clothes and had them laundered. Ray was identified as the person who rented Room 5B of the South Main Street rooming house and he was also identified as the lodger who left the bathroom of the rooming house following the shooting. Ray’s fingerprints proved that he owned the bundle that was dropped in the doorway of Canipe’s Amusement store shortly after the shooting. The bundle contained the rifle used to shoot King. Ray had expressed hatred for African-Americans. Ray lied time and time again about his movements when he fled the scene of the crime. Incontrovertible and overwhelming evidence exists to prove these facts.

However, it has taken over thirty years for independent researchers and government investigators to answer most of the questions posed by the conspiracy advocates. The FBI’s own system of filing has been partially responsible as their files were never indexed making it extremely difficult for writers to research the case.

Through painstaking work many researchers have provided further proof of Ray’s guilt. George McMillan’s interviews with Jerry and John Ray and Gerald Posner’s excellent research proved that Ray did indeed harbor racist sentiments. Posner also looked into the background of Pepper’s Raul and discovered that the Portuguese immigrant had nothing to do with the assassination whatsoever. In 2000, the DOJ investigators found proof within the FBI files that the car radio in Ray’s Mustang did not work at the time of the assassination, thereby putting the lie to Ray’s story that he first heard about King’s assassination when he drove away from the scene of the crime. The DOJ investigators also proved that many of the Jowers’s trial witnesses were motivated by financial gain, documents allegedly proving the existence of Ray’s handler, Raul, were bogus and the allegations of U.S. Army involvement in the murder were fabricated lies. During my own research I discovered that Ray was an occasional smoker. It is an issue that addresses the myth, propagated over the years, that Ray had an accomplice who left cigarette butts in the Mustang’s ashtray.

Throughout the years many conspiracists have been influenced more by enthusiasm than logic and rational answers to conspiracy-related scenarios seems to have escaped them. For example, it would have been simply too risky to employ an escaped convict to commit a murder of a famous public figure which would have brought all leading law enforcement agencies into play. Furthermore, as FBI, DEA and AFT agents and local police departments know too well - in the 1960s hired killers with no direct links to any criminal or extremist group could be bought for as little as $3000.This was no sophisticated murder, as conspiracy advocates maintain. King was an easy target for any killer bent on eliminating the Civil Rights leader. He did not have an armed guard; he frequently left his home on foot; and his travel arrangements were well publicized.

If Ray had indeed been aided by co-conspirators they would have spirited him away and placed him in hiding as soon as the murder had been carried out. They would not have allowed him to be exposed so many times during his months on the run. Conspirators would not have put themselves in jeopardy by allowing Ray the opportunity to identify fellow conspirators. And, if Ray had been an unwilling patsy, conspirators could not have been certain that Ray would flee the scene of the crime. Under these circumstances had Ray stayed put the whole conspiracy would have collapsed.

Because Ray had proclaimed the existence of a conspiracy during his trial it is inconceivable conspirators would have allowed him to remain alive during his time in prison. There were simply too many risks attached to this scenario. If conspirators, especially government-led killers, could successfully murder America’s greatest Civil Rights leader and then cover up the circumstances surrounding the act, they would assuredly have had little problem in eliminating Ray.

The evidence for James Earl Ray’s guilt is clear. He was an avowed racist who expressed his opinions on racial matters numerous times in the years preceding the assassination. His selection of lawyers underscored the racial motive for the crime. He told fellow inmates he was looking for the "big score," aware that his burglaries, bank robberies and petty crimes had amounted to little. During his time spent in the Missouri State Penitentiary Ray had associated with known racist groups, was known to harbor ideas about a bounty on King’s head and he apparently believed he could beat any murder case brought against him if he could kill King in the Deep South.

From the accumulated evidence in the case it can be concluded that Ray also believed the King bounty was genuine although there is no credible evidence that he made arrangements to collect it prior to or following the assassination. It is reasonable to assume that Ray may have wanted to collect whatever money was on offer through his brothers, at some future date. It is also plausible Ray took photographs of the crime scene as proof he had murdered King. However, as Ray admitted, he threw the camera equipment away, probably in a state of panic, as he fled Memphis. Ray’s plan was to go to a country that did not have extradition arrangements with the United States. Perhaps at some date in the future a President George Wallace would pardon him.

It is also clear that Ray’s actions were not predicated on the provision of a bounty. Ray knew that his crime was of such overwhelming proportions that publicity generated by the murder would never die, especially in a country like the United States which categorized famous murderers as celebrities. He was fully aware that the killers of Civil Rights workers Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo had been treated leniently by Southern courts. Book, magazine, and television contracts would always be on offer to pay for defense lawyers and financial provision for his brothers. If he had been lucky enough to escape to a foreign country he could have sold his story. He would also have been aware that racist right-wing organizations and a large body of American public opinion would be behind him.

Ray also killed King because he wanted to commit a famous political murder as a way of enhancing his professional status. He had become an institutionalized career criminal and over time had learned how to come to terms with the harsh realities of prison life. As Ray noted in his autobiography, “getting caught and doing time was a cost of doing business.” Professional criminals understand the vocational hazards of their chosen profession. They must be willing to submit themselves, at some stage in their careers, to long stretches in prison. They may even view the possibility of prison as a welcome respite from their stressful occupation. Indeed, life on the outside was, to a man like Ray, anxiety-laden and stressful. He had spoken of how he became anxious, depressed and suffered severe headaches during his time on the run. In short, Ray had nothing to lose by chancing the big score. Whichever way it turned out he would be no worse off than he already had been following his escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary in April 1967.

Ray had practiced deception all his life. A psychiatrist employed by the Missouri State prison system had been convinced that Ray was capable of murder. Rather than the bumbling crook he is portrayed by his defenders, Ray was instead, cunning crafty and manipulative. These qualities were recognized by Ray’s ex-wife, Anna. Some of his lawyers have spoken of how Ray would manipulate them. He was an astute ‘jailhouse lawyer’ who had spent years learning the fine points of the law, especially with respect to appeals procedure and how the law applied to the lawyer/client relationship. He knew how to keep his hopes for freedom alive.

In the real world accusation without confirmation is worthless. However, during his trial, Ray knew he had introduced enough doubt as to stimulate future public examinations of his case. He knew the idea of conspiracy would keep his case alive in the public eye. Had there not been a climate of conspiratorial thinking engendered by the public doubt about Lee Harvey Oswald’s guilt it is unlikely the King case would have been intensely scrutinized for the past thirty years. And keeping the real truth about the assassination hidden would not have been difficult for a man like Ray. He had always been a loner who never fully revealed himself to anyone - not his brothers, his family, his fellow prisoners, his acquaintances or his lawyers. All of his life he had refused to cooperate with authority, had contempt for the whole justice system, defiantly mocked the police and concocted lies for his defense. He was devoid of any moral center; he never felt the need to ‘chew the fat’ with anyone or to talk about himself.

Ray had initially promoted his ‘conspiracy story’ as a way out of the mess he had gotten himself into. He knew he would be spending the rest of his natural life in prison therefore his only hope was to insist he had been a mere ‘patsy’. It is likely that his resolve in sticking to his story would have collapsed had it not been the support he was given by conspiracy advocates.

It was also evident that he was able to convince himself that he had a plausible case to make. In 1959 Ray had told an arresting police officer, “I cannot deny it and I won’t admit it.” During the late 1970s his lawyer, Mark Lane, had put in Ray’s mind the difference between “truth” and “legal truth.” Ray could therefore persuade himself that he was really innocent because the courts had not established the full circumstances of the crime. He knew that the assistance given to him by his brothers established, to his own satisfaction, a case for conspiracy. The state had not proven a conspiracy had existed therefore he had been telling the truth. In fact Ray had been manipulating reality to suit his own version of the truth. This was the reason why the polygraph results were inconclusive when Ray answered questions about a conspiracy. The same polygraph examiner determined Ray had been lying when he denied killing King.

These realities are consistent with Ray’s cryptic reply to Dexter King when the Civil Rights leader’s son asked him if he had killed his father - “No, I didn’t, no, no, but sometimes you have to make your own evaluation and maybe come to that conclusion. I think that could be done today, but not 30 years ago.”

It is unlikely the factual evidence about the Martin Luther King murder case will persuade the American public of Ray’s guilt. American society has been influenced too much by the conspiracists’ world-view and the sub-text that underlies the promotion of conspiracy stories which are predicated on a disillusionment with the institutions of American government. In 1963 75 percent of the American population trusted the federal government. Today that figure has diminished to 25 percent.

The death of James Earl Ray in 1998 added to the discontent and dissatisfaction many people felt at the many attempts to establish the whole truth about the King killing. Ray left no deathbed confession nor did he retract the numerous claims he made about the mysterious Raoul. By keeping silent Ray was effectively thumbing his nose at a society that had relegated him to the bottom of the heap.

Government files on the King slaying are sealed until 2029.Opening these documents will only reveal why investigators have been so convinced of Ray’s guilt and why they have always rejected a wider conspiracy. This case has been characterized by obfuscation, manipulation, lies, greed and distortion of the facts, allowing James Earl Ray to escape blame. The truth of the matter is that James Earl Ray murdered Martin Luther King and he acted alone when he shot the Civil Rights leader but he was possibly aided by one or both of his brothers before or after the fact. As Anna Ray, the assassin’s wife, told television talk show host Geraldo Rivera in the 1990s, “ [James told me] ‘Yeah I did it, so what?’… James will never admit to the killing again – he’ll carry his secret to the grave. He’s created a mystique by recanting his original 150 page confession. He doesn’t want to go down in history as the killer of Martin Luther King Jr., so he’ll deny it to his death.”