Political Assassinations: Martin Luther King, Jr.
Chapter 23 of my 2017 book Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders discusses one of the most infamous murders in American history, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
From the perspective of the twenty-first century, Dr. King has become a revered figure. His likeness is stamped on numerous public monuments, and the anniversary of his birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. Yet during the tumultuous era when he lived and worked as a civil rights activist, Dr. King frequently became the target of verbal and physical attacks.
He began his public career as a minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, a black woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to get up from her seat when a white person wanted the seat on a Montgomery city bus, which was heavily segregated. Legally, a black person was required to surrender a seat near the front of the bus when it was needed for a white patron. Blacks were expected to ride in the back of the bus. For her defiance that day, Parks was charged with violating the city’s segregation law. (She was the second black woman to violate the law. In March of that year, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl, refused to give up her seat and ran afoul of the law. Because Colvin reputedly was pregnant and unwed at the time, local black leaders resolved to wait for a better test case.) Rosa Parks fit the bill nicely. Using her arrest as a springboard for action, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), a grassroots organization formed to lead a boycott against the city buses, lobbied to change the segregation laws. The boycott lasted 382 days, and pushed the city to comply with the activists’ demands. Dr. King, just 26 years old, had been selected to serve as the public face for the MIA boycott, and the episode transformed him into a national figure.
He had not sought out fame, nor had he planned to become a civil rights activist, but he did not shy away when history called. In 1957, Dr. King was one of 60 ministers who formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help organize black churches in a bid to improve Negro civil rights. He headed the organization until his death 11 years later. King participated in landmark civil rights marches and protests under the SCLC auspices. With a talent for oratory and a willingness to wade into dangerous situations, he became in many ways the leading spokesman for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. King’s commitment to Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent protest established the moral authority of the mainstream civil rights movement of his era. Owing in no small measure to King’s leadership, Congress enacted and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed two major laws—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—that eventually destroyed legal segregation in the United States. King won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 1964.
Dr. King visited Memphis during the spring of 1968 to mediate a sanitation strike as part of his Poor People’s Campaign to promote economic justice. Unfortunately, events spiraled out of control as militant young blacks calling themselves the Black Organizing Project (BOP), or the “Invaders,” refused to protest peacefully. King had been deeply unnerved by violence that erupted during a march in the city, fearing that such acts undermined the moral authority of his protests. To his dismay, the civil rights movement, already fractious and undisciplined, appeared to be splintering before his eyes.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, Dr. King stepped onto the balcony outside of his hotel room in the Lorraine Motel. He was troubled by divisions within the civil rights community. His greatest triumphs were behind him, and he knew it. A group of young Turks from more militant organizations challenged the old man’s non-violent approach. They were frustrated by conservative black leaders who turned the other cheek. If white Americans insisted on employing violence, the new civil rights activists were prepared to answer with a similar, proportional response.
Dr. King had been moody and out of sorts lately, fatigued from overwork. Tonight, he resolved, he would lay aside his burdens and allow himself a brief respite. As dusk approached, King and friends prepared for a relaxing dinner.
He was trading banter with his staffers and friends as he leaned on the balcony outside of his hotel room. Solomon Jones, the evening’s chauffeur, called up to King. “It’s getting chilly. I think you’ll need a topcoat.”
“Okay, Jonesy,” Dr. King responded. “You really know how to take good care of me.” Fishing a cigarette from his pocket, he turned as if to retreat back in his hotel room to search for his coat.
At that moment, a rifle shot echoed across the courtyard and a bullet smacked into the right side of King’s face, destroying his jaw and traveling down into his neck. It tore the necktie from his shirt and violently hurled him backward. Gasping, he clutched at his throat with his right hand while he clawed at the railing with his left. Unable to remain on his feet, he collapsed, his legs becoming entangled in the railing as he fell.
From inside the hotel room, Ralph Abernathy was applying aftershave, preparing for a long evening. He heard a sound, he later said, that reminded him of a car backfiring. With the door open, he had been listening to King’s banter with the staff. After he heard the strange sound and realized that Martin had stopped talking, Abernathy rushed to the doorway to see what had caused the commotion. To his amazement, he saw his good friend splayed out on the concrete, his arms spread wide like a figure nailed to a cross.
“Oh my God,” he exclaimed, “Martin’s been shot!”
Everyone in the courtyard below called out for Abernathy to duck. An unseen gunman might still be lurking around. No one knew where he was. Leaning down so that he would not become a convenient target, Abernathy stepped over the prone figure. King seemed to be looking up, fear in his eyes. The hole in his jaw was massive. Blood gushed out of the man’s neck, pooling on the concrete.
Abernathy realized the injury was grievous, possibly fatal, but he wanted to comfort his friend in his desperate hour. “Martin, it’s all right. Don’t worry. This is Ralph. This is Ralph.”
But it was not all right. The life was draining out of Martin Luther King, Jr., as blood cascaded about his head. One eyewitness later described the thick puddle of liquid as “crimson molasses.” Within minutes, King’s eyes glazed over and his skin turned ashen. He slipped into shock.
Satisfied that the gunman did not intend to fire a second shot, King’s supporters raced up to the balcony. Marrel McCullough, an undercover policeman, grabbed a white motel towel and slid it under King’s jaw, wrapping it around the dying man’s head.
The police arrived and asked where the bullet had originated. A nearby photographer captured the moment as Dr. King's followers frantically pointed toward the spot where they believed the gunman had fired the fatal shot. Investigators scurried away to pursue the assailant.
Emergency medical technicians arrived within minutes. They passed a stretcher upstairs so the wounded man could be loaded and carried off to the hospital. Six men carried King down the stairs to a waiting ambulance. He was still alive, but barely.
With its famous passenger tucked inside, at 6:09 p.m.—eight minutes after the gunfire—the ambulance raced to nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital. When it arrived six minutes later, the vehicle jerked to a stop. Abernathy, grim-faced and weary, jumped from the ambulance and accompanied King, now unconscious, as doctors wheeled the wounded man on a gurney down the hospital hallway to prepare for emergency surgery.
Surgeons took charge in a crowded operating room. Because King was struggling to breathe, a doctor performed a tracheotomy. Connected to a respirator, King appeared to recover slightly, his breathing settling into a rhythm. Doctors opened his chest cavity to repair the extensive damage. All the while Ralph Abernathy, now joined by Reverend Bernard Lee, stood off to the side, watching.
Alas, the trauma had been too great, and King had lost too much blood. The surgeons massaged his heart, but to no avail. Dr. Jerome Barrasso pronounced Martin Luther King, Jr., dead at 7:05 p.m., slightly more than an hour after the bullet had slammed into MLK’s jaw.
As the news circulated, riots broke out in many American cities. President Lyndon B. Johnson appeared on television. “America is shocked and saddened by the brutal slaying tonight of Dr. Martin Luther King,” he said in a somber tone. “I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by nonviolence. I pray that his family can find comfort in the memory of all he tried to do for the land he loved so well.” It was a brief statement, lasting just minutes. The president described King as an “outstanding leader” and stressed the man’s central mission to unite, not divide Americans. “We can achieve nothing by lawlessness and divisiveness among the American people. It is only by joining together and only by working together that we can continue to move toward equality and fulfillment for all of our people. I hope that all Americans tonight will search their hearts as they ponder this most tragic incident.”
Even as word of shooting spread and the world reacted, police officers and FBI agents in Memphis fanned out to search for the assailant. At 6:10 p.m., after interviewing witnesses who saw a man apparently fleeing the area, officers issued a bulletin to be on the lookout for a “young white male, well dressed, believed in late-model white Mustang, going north on Main from scene of shooting.” Twenty minutes later, investigators discovered a bundle of items discarded adjacent to the Canipe Amusement Company located next to Bessie Brewer’s Rooming House.
They decided to check out the rooming house. A man named John Willard had rented Room 8 in the rooming house earlier that day, although he later changed to Room 5B. Upon entering Room 5B, police realized that it overlooked the Lorraine Motel courtyard. A nearby communal bathroom offered an unobstructed view of the balcony outside of Dr. King’s hotel room. They concluded that the rifle shot probably had come from the bathroom.
Perhaps the now-missing John Willard shot Dr. King and immediately fled, dropping the bundle in his haste to escape. When investigators unwrapped the strange bundle, they found a Remington 760 Gamemaster .30-06 rifle, binoculars, clothing, a Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper story about Dr. King checking into the Lorraine Motel, two beer cans, and a radio. It was a treasure trove of clues. Fingerprints found on the items would help break the case.
Several names emerged during the early stages of the investigation. They were aliases used by a small-time criminal named James Earl Ray. Sentenced to serve a twenty-year sentence at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Ray had escaped in 1967 and disappeared from sight. Now, like a bad penny, he had turned up again.
It is unclear when or why Ray resolved to murder Martin Luther King, Jr., but by early 1968 he was behaving like a man on a mission. On March 5, he visited a doctor, Russell Hadley, who performed facial reconstruction surgery, a form of rhinoplasty, to alter his appearance. He drove from Los Angeles, checked into an Atlanta rooming house, and apparently began stalking Dr. King. On March 30, he purchased the Remington 760 Gamemaster .30-06 rifle from the Aeromarine Supply Company in Birmingham, Alabama. He eventually returned to Atlanta and read an article about King’s plans to fly to Memphis in early April. On April 2, Ray hopped into his Mustang and headed to a rendezvous with infamy.
Two days later, Ray, using his “John Willard” alias, wasted no time in fleeing from Bessie Brewer’s Rooming House after Dr. King collapsed with a bullet lodged in his neck. From there, he drove to Toronto, Canada, and stayed out of sight for a month as the FBI launched one of the most extensive manhunts in American history. While he was in Canada, he acquired a Canadian passport under the name Ramon George Sneyd. Afterward, the fugitive contemplated his next move. He had hoped to buy a plane ticket to Rhodesia, an African nation known as a haven for white supremacists, but the expensive airfare convinced him to opt for London, England. Once he was overseas, he embarked on a brief trip to Lisbon, Portugal, before returning to London.
On June 8, 1968, authorities arrested Ray at Heathrow Airport as he sought to leave England on a false Canadian passport. The name “Sneyd” appeared on a Royal Canadian Mounted Police watch list. Extradited back to the Tennessee to stand trial, Ray realized that he faced the death penalty if a jury convicted him.
The evidence against him was overwhelming. For starters, FBI agents had established a trail showing where and when he purchased the rifle. They also tied him to other items inside the discarded bundle. Fingerprints linked him to the rifle and the map found in the Atlanta rooming house. On and on it went. To avoid what appeared to be an almost certain conviction, Ray entered a guilty plea to the murder charge and, in exchange, avoided execution. The court sentenced him to serve 99 years in prison.
Three days after he agreed to plead guilty, James Earl Ray recanted. He said that he had confessed on the advice of his attorney, the prominent criminal defense lawyer Percy Foreman, but that he had changed his mind. Ray claimed he was innocent of the crime, but such a statement was hardly surprising; defendants charged with a capital offense frequently insist on their lack of culpability. In his defense, Ray explained that in 1967, he had met with a shadowy figure known as Raoul (sometimes spelled “Raul”) who plotted Dr. King’s murder.
True or false, it was a fantastic narrative, casting Raoul as the evil puppet-master and Ray as the unwitting puppet. Raoul directed Ray to buy the .30-06 Remington rifle used in the crime. Raoul also met Ray the night before the assassination, took possession of the rifle, and ordered Ray to rent a room in Bessie Brewer’s Rooming House. Ray did as he had been instructed, but otherwise took no part in the shooting. Raoul or one of his associates murdered King with Ray’s rifle, and left an innocent man behind as a convenient patsy.
Confined to prison until his death in 1998, James Earl Ray spent his time hiring and firing a series of fringe lawyers to promote his alibi and present fantastic tales of shadowy figures engaged in nefarious plots. Reminiscent of the brouhaha surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, the public remained fascinated about what really happened in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. The “truth about the MLK murder” became a popular topic in a seemingly endless parade of books, articles, news stories, documentaries, and films.
As time passed and Martin Luther King, Jr., became a distant, revered icon, questions lingered about his assassin. Did James Earl Ray act alone or was he part of a larger cabal that methodically planned and executed one of the most notorious crimes in twentieth century American history? Was he even involved? If so, what motivated a low-rent hustler to become a ruthless political assassin?
The circumstantial evidence against Ray was overwhelming. He left a large trail of eyewitnesses and documents implicating him in the crime. Conspiracy buffs contend that the trail was too large and the clues too obvious to be anything other than a classic hatchet job. Ray was framed, they believe, by the elusive Raoul character. Perhaps such a man existed—books and articles published over the years claimed to have discovered the man’s true identity—but no credible evidence has ever demonstrated his participation.
Classifying Ray according to his motives is difficult because his motives were anything but clear. If he is placed in the Type 1 category, it implies that Ray focused on eliminating King because he disagreed with the civil rights leader’s political goals. Yet Ray never demonstrated much interest in, or awareness of, politics before he set his sights on killing Martin Luther King, Jr.
If he was considered a Type 2 killer, Ray must have been desperate to become famous by killing a prominent person. Yet his frantic attempt to evade capture, his decision to recant his confession, and his insistence for three decades that he was a patsy suggested that he did not crave attention for his actions. Type 2 killers seek out media exposure. They live for the notoriety. They are proud of their deed. It is entirely possible that Ray reveled in his infamy, but it is not clear that he did so. He was such a perverse personality that understanding his motives poses an enormous challenge.
If he pulled the trigger to secure a monetary payoff, Ray might have been a classic Type 3 sociopath who acted with little regard for the immorality of his actions. A classic nihilist, the Type 3 actor acts because his life is empty and devoid of meaning. This category appears to be an appealing place to place Ray. Yet the evidence that he was a sociopath seeking a payday is non-existent. Shadowy figures, hidden conspiracies, and lurking clues are interesting to contemplate, but they do not amount to much in the final analysis.
From all accounts, Ray was not a delusional Type 4 actor. He never claimed to hear voices or suffer from severe cognitive distortion. What he did—assuming he did it—he probably did for rational reasons even if the reasons were not clear to anyone else. Then again, perhaps James Earl Ray was as confused about his motives as everyone else. Perhaps he went to his grave with the same questions as everyone who has reviewed his case: Did he do it and, if so, why?