The Martin Luther King Assassination
Martin Luther King Jr. at the National Mall.
Like the other assassinations of the 1960s, the King murder had its "lone nut," in this case James Earl Ray, an escaped convict who purchased the rifle found near the assassination scene and was caught in flight two months later. But, also like the other assassinations, evidence of conspiracy was easily found, despite being ignored by government investigators.
Aides on Lorraine Motel balcony with
the stricken Dr. King.
In the early evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by a single shot which struck his face and neck. He was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to lead a peaceful march in support of striking sanitation workers. About an hour later, he was pronounced dead at 7:05 PM at St. Joseph Hospital.
Shortly after the murder, a bundle was dropped near the door of Canipe's Amusement Co. near the assassination scene, and a white Mustang sped away. Memphis police officers found the bundle to contain a .30-06 rifle, ammunition, a pair of binoculars, and other items. The rifle had been purchased in Birmingham by a Harvey Lowmeyer, later determined to be one of several aliases used by Ray.
Pursuit of the white Mustang was thwarted by CB radio transmissions which described a high-speed chase between the occupants of a blue Pontiac and the white Mustang, and even describing gunplay between the vehicles. These broadcasts appear to have been a hoax or diversion. The broadcaster of these CB radio transmissions has never been identified.
Ray's Apprehension, Confession, and Conviction
Missouri Dept. of Corrections
mugshot of James Earl Ray.
Authorities at first had little to go on. "Harvey Lowmeyer," the purchaser of the rifle found in the bundle, was described as a "white male, 36 years old, 5 feet, 8 inches tall, 150 to 160 pounds, black or dark brown hair," a description fitting many people. The FBI's investigation soon focused on an Eric S. Galt, a name used on a registration card at the New Rebel Motel in Memphis. On April 19, fingerprints on the rifle and other items were matched to James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary. More than a month passed without Ray being located. Finally, on June 1 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found a possible photographic match between Ray and a George Raymon Sneyd's Canadian passport. A week later, on June 8, Ray was arrested in Heathrow Airport in London, apparently on his way to Rhodesia.
Ray was extradited to the US to face trial. He replaced his first attorney, Arthur Hanes, with Percy Foreman. Foreman, who had represented more than 400 murder-case defendants, convinced Ray to plead guilty as the only way of avoiding the death penalty. On March 10, 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. A "mini-trial" on that day settled few of the questions which had arisen during the preceding year. And Ray himself hinted at a conspiracy, interrupting the proceedings to saying that while he "agreed to all these stipulations," he did not "exactly accept the theories of Mr. Clark" (the Attorney General)..."I mean on the conspiracy thing." Three days later, Ray recanted his plea and requested a new trial in two letters to Judge Battle. The judge did not act upon these letters, and was found dead at his desk of a heart attack three weeks later, literally with Ray's appeal under his body.
Evidence of Conspiracy
Since recanting his confession three days after giving it, James Earl Ray began claiming his innocence, saying that he did not know King was in Memphis and that his actions had for months been directed by a mysterious person named "Raoul." Beyond Ray's own possibly self-serving statements, though, there are several indications that there was more to the King murder than just Ray. Among these are Ray's sophisticated use of aliases, evidence of framing including a second white Mustang at the assassination scene and the convenient "bundle" of evidence implicating Ray, and several indications that Ray was aided or directed at times. For instance, Ray purchased a Winchester rifle and had it equipped with a scope, and then almost immediately called back and exchanged the rifle the following day for a Remington .30-06, telling the salesman that his "brother" had told him the Winchester was unsuitable. Ray had rejected a .30-06 during his original purchase as too expensive.
The real Eric S. Galt.
Researcher Philip Melanson has written that Ray used aliases which matched actual people living in Montreal, and began using those aliases before he first arrived there during his pre-assassination travels: "four of the five aliases used by Ray in the nine months preceding the crime were real Canadians who lived in close proximity to each other." These people - Eric S. Galt, Raymond George Sneyd, Paul E. Bridgeman - all lived within a couple of miles of each other in Toronto, and all looked very similar to Ray. Galt and Willard, another Toronto resident whose name Ray used, both had scars on the right side of their faces, as Ray did. Though Ray had used aliases throughout his criminal career, there is no evidence Ray had been to Toronto prior to fleeing there after the King murder, and no explanation for how he came to use these particular names.
Other oddities written about by researchers of the case include a second white Mustang, not owned by Ray, which may have been the one seen fleeing the murder scene, as well as the CB radio "hoax" mentioned earlier, and a delivery of an enveloped to Ray by a mysterious "fat man." Some writers have interpreted the evidence as a sophisticated operation which brought Ray into an assassination plot and then left him holding the bag at the scene of King's murder.
There was no eyewitness to the shooting, and there are credibility problems with the sole witness to Ray's allegedly fleeing the roominghouse bathroom from which he is said to have fired the rifle. The slug removed from King's body was never matched to Ray's rifle. The rifle shot was never proven to have come from the bathroom window, and may have come from the bushy area on the ground below.
Ray's skill with a rifle is dubious, and while he did commit armed robbery he had never harmed anyone previously during his criminal endeavors. And the man whose career one author described as "a record of bungled and ludicrously inept robberies and burglaries" purportedly managed to kill King with one perfect shot and then elude authorities for longer than any other American political assassin.
Further, reminiscent of Oswald and the JFK assassination, there appears to be no motive for Ray the loner to kill King. A petty criminal, Ray seems unlikely to have committed the crime purely out of racial hatred, and anecdotes of his racism are thin. The idea that he killed King in order to achieve notoriety is implausible given the lengths to which he went to avoid capture (nearly succeeding). As Ray's brother John told the St. Louis Dispatch following James' arrest: "If my brother did kill King he did it for a lot of money - he never did anything if it wasn't for money."
Skeptics point out that Ray's story of Raoul has never been backed up by any solid evidence, and despite some minor mysteries, concrete and credible evidence tying Ray to any conspiracy has never emerged. The problem here is that the FBI, which conducted much of the initial investigations, was more interested in finding and then convicting Ray than in finding accomplices. The FBI had received death threats against King which it had never shared with the civil rights leader, and it withheld relevant files from later investigations. Beyond the FBI's initial investigation, the only large-scale study of the King murder was undertaken by the House Select Committee on Assassinations. And that body found a "likelihood" of a conspiracy.
The HSCA Investigation
The House Select Committee on Assassinations conducted investigations into the murders of both President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the King case, the HSCA wrote about the context of the murder, noting in particular the then-recent revelations of the FBI's COINTELPRO operations and its harassment of Dr. King. Regarding the assassination itself, the HSCA interviewed Ray extensively, along with his brothers and many witnesses and officials. Some of the HSCA's findings were:
- Ray fired the shot that killed King, from the roominghouse bathroom window.
- Ray's "Raoul" story was "not worthy of belief, and may have been invented partly to cover for help received from his brothers John and Jerry."
- There was a "likelihood" of conspiracy. In particular, the HSCA focused on an alleged $50,000 bounty on King's life offered in St. Louis.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover,
whose organization directed a
campaign of harassment against
Some of these and other HSCA findings are on more solid ground than others. The otherwise-detailed HSCA Final Report is also silent on some issues, most glaringly Ray's sophisticated use of aliases. The alias issue was well-known to the Committee - in executive session Congressman Lehner on one occasion noted that this "would indicate that a rather sophisticated operation was at work, and this would not fit in, as Mr. McKinney has stated, with the background of Ray as we know him..."
The HSCA was also aware of a $100,000 bounty offer on Dr. King which was being offered by the White Knights of Mississippi. A number of post-assassination leads pointed to the possibility that members of the White Knights were involved in some fashion with the attack on Dr. King.
To what extent the HSCA investigated these and other issues, and what they found, is difficult to say at present. There has been no MLK Records Act to match the 1992 JFK Records Act, and thus the HSCA's files on the King investigation remain sealed to this day. The executive session statement quoted above is available by accident, as King-related discussion in these transcripts is typically blacked out.
The Jowers Confession and the Civil Trial
Loyd Jowers, the owner of Jim's Grill located on the ground floor of the building which contained the roominghouse, confessed to involvement in the King assassination on ABC Prime Time Live in 1993. Jowers said that a Mafia-associated Memphis produce dealer named Frank Liberto gave him $100,000 to hire a hitman to kill King. Jowers said he stored the actual assassination rifle in his restaurant, retrieving it from the real killer.
Dexter King at the 1999 civil trial against
Ray's attorney William Pepper pursued this allegation, and the King family sued Jowers in a wrongful death lawsuit. This resulted in a civil trial in 1999. At the end of that trial, the Judge read the jury's verdict: "In answer to the question did Loyd Jowers participate in a conspiracy to do harm to Dr. Martin Luther King, your answer is yes. Do you also find that others, including governmental agencies, were parties to this conspiracy as alleged by the defendant? Your answer to that one is also yes. And the total amount of damages you find for the plaintiffs entitled to is one hundred dollars. Is that your verdict?" The jury replied: "Yes."
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the King civil trial, coming on the heels of America's obsession with the O.J. Simpson trial, is that this event received almost no coverage in the US media.
In 2000, the Department of Justice investigated the Jowers allegation. Noting inconsistencies in his story, and calling it "the product of a carefully orchestrated promotional effort," the DOJ found the story to be "unsubstantiated."
Free the MLK Files
Like the JFK assassination, the murder of Martin Luther King highlights the problems with federal investigations of such high-profile killings. Many believe that persons or elements of the government were themselves involved in each of these murders. Whether this is the case or not, it is clear that evidence of conspiracy has not always been pursued with vigor, and in some cases the term "coverup" is merited.
In the JFK case, author Peter Dale Scott has written that government records tell us more about pre-assassination intelligence operations and post-assassination coverup than they do about the murder conspiracy itself, but "this oblique path to the truth about the murder is the best hope which the documents give us." (Deep Politics II, p.1)
It is high time for an MLK Records Act along the lines of the law which forced declassification of the JFK files in the 1990s. The voluminous files of the HSCA remain sealed for no good reason. Those few files which mistakenly leaked out with the JFK files included the startlingly open discussion of Ray's aliases quoted above and copies of King "surveillance take" which made it into the hands of the CIA's JMWAVE station. There is likely more.