Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

James Earl Ray: The Man Who Killed Dr. Martin Luther King


Dexter King notwithstanding, even the most rabid conspiracy buffs acknowledge that James Earl Ray at least played a part in killing Martin Luther King Jr. The question few have been able to answer with any degree of credibility is: Why? Was Ray's racist hatred of King and other blacks strong enough to drive a previously non-violent criminal to murder? Or was there another factor — or factors — at work?

Huie, whose relationship with James Earl Ray was fractious at best, believes Ray killed King and that he killed him to gain notoriety. Huie cites Ray's almost neurotic obsession with having his photograph taken as a desire to leave a trail for the law to follow once he "made the big time." Escaping from Jefferson City had failed to get him on the 10 Most Wanted List and smuggling drugs into Canada and from Mexico didn't make him a notorious felon. Having slipped into Canada he could easily have started a new life free from crime, but that didn't suit his personality. A serious, noteworthy crime would cement his place in history and killing Martin Luther King fit the bill nicely.

Once arrested and faced with insurmountable evidence against him, Ray did the only thing possible to save his skin: he copped a plea. But three days later, when he realized that his notoriety had diminished greatly once he passed into the Tennessee prison system and became just another number, Ray sought desperately to regain the spotlight. Having little else to do other than stare at the bars of his cell, he started a battle to "clear his name" that would last the rest of his life.

When that battle ended in defeat, he did the only other thing he knew to come under public scrutiny: he attempted an escape.

But to other students of the King assassination, Huie's theory that Ray's ego drove him to kill is insufficient. Because Ray traveled extensively across international borders and drew upon a seemingly inexhaustible supply of money, it is easy to build a circumstantial case of a well-financed conspiracy to kill King. Some argue that Fidel Castro was behind the assassination, hoping that King's death would spur some sort of widespread race war in the United States. Others have claimed organized crime was behind King's murder. However, there is no evidence this is the case and the standard operating procedure for a mob killing usually involves a gunman from inside the mob — not an inept, inexperienced gunman like Ray.

There is ample evidence in the FBI files that Hoover and his associates wanted King removed from the civil rights movement in a less-than-honorable method, but there exist no public records of any official suggesting, thinking about or approving any act of physical violence against King. Of course many documents related to the assassination remain sealed, but any claim that Hoover or any other high-ranking FBI official played a role in an assassination plot is pure speculation simply not supported by physical evidence.

President Johnson was unhappy with King's anti-war stance, but by April 1968, Johnson's standing among the American people was so low that murdering King would not have salvaged his chances to retain the presidency. Bobby Kennedy, as attorney general, had feared King's alleged pro-communist leanings, but having lost a brother to an assassin's bullet, it is unlikely that he would have seen murder as a chance to remove a potential rival.

But what of the more radical groups on either side of the civil rights issue? The Ku Klux Klan on the far right and the Black Panthers (just one of many black radical groups) on the left? The Klan murdered, to be sure and the Klan probably wanted Martin Luther King Jr. out of the picture and in the grave, but the Klan was strong enough to recruit from within to kill King. Ray was a racist; there is ample evidence of this, but he was not a member of the KKK. And as his prison record showed, he was incapable or unwilling to work with blacks so there is little likelihood that he would have agreed to kill King as a favor for the Black Panthers or the Invaders or the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Gerald Posner, however, spent a great deal of time and effort tracking down and confirming or attempting to confirm many conspiracy scenarios for his book Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King. Among the plots Posner investigated was one involving James Earl Ray and his double, acting as agents for the CIA.

Ten years after the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, the U.S. Congress appointed a select committee to investigate the murders of King and the two Kennedy brothers. Ray was interviewed at length by private investigators, lawyers for the committee and journalists. He took two lie detector tests and failed both of them; the polygraph operators — one hired by the government, the other by Ray's lawyer — each found that Ray lied when he was asked if he killed King.

The committee examined each of the conspiracy theories and in turn dismissed them, but was severely hampered in its investigation by being unable to examine top-secret FBI files. Walter Fauntroy, a member of The House Select Committee on Assassins, which reopened the investigation of King's assassination in the 1970s, has repeatedly said that he was unsatisfied with the investigation because he felt it ended too quickly and failed to fully explore the conspiracy allegations.

"We didn't have the time to investigate leads we had established but could not follow," Fauntroy said.

The committee "found that (Ray's attorney) was willing to advocate conspiracy theories without having checked the factual basis for them." Furthermore, the report concluded, James Earl Ray "fired one shot at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The shot killed Dr. King." The report was not a total loss for conspiracy theorists, however. After extensive investigation both publicly and privately, the Congressional committee concluded that although "no federal, state or local government agency was involved in the assassination of Dr. King...on the basis of circumstantial evidence...there is a likelihood of a conspiracy."

Posner believes that a St. Louis attorney named John Sutherland who put up a $50,000 bounty on King's head organized the conspiracy. Ray was aware of Sutherland's bounty in prison, Posner said, and talked of it to other inmates. The Congressional committee found the same motivation for Ray's act.


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