Nicola Tallant in Memphis probes the Martin Luther King murder conspiracy
Standing under the sign for the Lorraine Motel, my gaze moves between the iconic balcony of Room 306 to the former rooming house across the street where a single bullet was fired, changing the course of history.
I’m just a lowly crime hack, but I’ve always listened to my gut and this time it is telling me to take on board a basic fact.
It’s a long way between the two buildings – 200 metres according to reports – and my first thought is that this assassination was surely the work of a trained military sniper.
The bullet hit its target at 6.01pm on April 4, 1968, and within minutes civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King was dead – the gunshot so accurate he never stood a chance of survival.
The Lorraine Motel, located at 450 Mulberry Street, downtown Memphis, was a regular haunt of Dr King. He often stayed there with his entourage as the hotel welcomed black visitors at a time when segregation was rife.
Bessie Brewer’s boarding house across the road had earlier in the day welcomed the business of James Earl Ray – a small-time criminal who had been discharged from the army 20 years previously. He was certainly no military sniper and neither was he a master criminal.
The fact of the matter is that Ray has never fitted the crime. Now, as the National Civil Rights Museum embark upon a year-long remembrance of the life and legacy of Dr King, the focus is back on what really happened in Memphis.
The annual commemoration held this week at the museum, which is located alongside the Lorraine Motel, included the usual wreath laying and tributes to Dr King.
James Earl Ray was on the run from a 20-year prison sentence for repeated robberies when he became one of the most famous killers in United States history.
Ray first admitted that he had assassinated Dr King, but later retracted his guilty pleas, convincing many, including King’s son, that he had nothing to do with the murder.
If Ray was a cool and calculated killer, his early life showed no signs of what was to come. He was born into an impoverished family who had to move from state to state as his father ran from the law.
He joined the army and served in Germany at the end of World War II, but was kicked out after bouts of drinking.
He returned to America, where he got involved in burglaries, armed robberies and mail fraud, eventually receiving a 20-year sentence for a string of offences.
In 1967 he hid in a bread van and escaped from Missouri prison. While on the run he tried his hand at directing pornographic movies, using prostitutes as his actresses. He eventually began to show an interest in politics and showed racist tendencies.
According to the authorities, Ray’s racism took a dark turn around March 1968 when he became fixated on Dr King. He travelled to Georgia and Alabama, where he watched churches and residences where the civil rights leader was staying.
By the time he arrived in Memphis, it was claimed, he knew Dr King’s schedule and where he planned to stay from reading newspapers.
According to police, Ray had purchased a rifle using an alias some days earlier. Once inside the rooming house, it was claimed, he established that the best position to shoot King was while teetering on the edge of a bath and leaning out the window of a communal bathroom.
King arrived in Memphis on April 3, 1967 and addressed a rally at the Mason Temple church. There he delivered one of his iconic speeches – one which would become his last. It has become known as the ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech.
At the end of the speech, he poignantly said: “And so, I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Less than a day later Reverend King walked out to his balcony and was struck by a single .30-06 caliber rifle bullet that entered his right jaw, travelled through his neck, severed his spinal cord and only stopped in his shoulder blade.
From the balcony, those first on the scene pointed to the window of Bessie Brewer’s boarding house across the road.
Deputy Vernon Dollahite arrived on the scene and within two minutes had entered the boarding house, failing to see James Earl Ray’s Mustang pulling away.
The deputy would also later discover a bundle in a doorway containing a rifle and binoculars linking Ray to the shooting.
While the nation reeled and black communities teetered on the brink of all-out anarchy, Ray drove to Canada where he acquired a false passport and made his way first to Lisbon and then London, where he was eventually nabbed at Heathrow Airport.
On his return to the U.S. he pleaded guilty to King’s murder and was sentenced to 99 years in jail. However, he would later recount his confession and claim innocence.
The questions, inconsistencies and twists and turns of Martin Luther King’s murder were just beginning.
The main theory is James Earl Ray was nothing more than a ruse for an even more sinister individual or authority that wanted Dr King dead.
All sorts of individuals have been suggested, including the CIA, the FBI, the Memphis police, the government and various political opponents.
While Ray managed to convince members of Dr King’s family, including his son Dexter, of his innocence, few credible historians have actually disputed that he killed the civil rights leader and fled the scene.
However, many believe that Ray didn’t act alone and couldn’t possibly have executed such a high-profile murder, given his dysfunctional background.
In December 1993, to add to suspicions, Loyd Jowers, a Memphis barman, claimed that he was involved in killing King along with the Mafia and the U.S. government. He claimed that the shooter was a Memphis police officer and also claimed he was a man called ‘Raul’. In 2000, a Department of Justice investigation found no evidence to Jowers’ claims.
Ballistic tests over the years have also confused matters and fuelled conspiracy theories. One test claimed that the shot was fired from a bush and not the rooming house, another suggested that it could have been fired from the car park below where friends of Dr King were talking to him at the time of his murder.
The name ‘Raul’ came up again when an ex -FBI officer claimed to have found the name scrawled in Ray’s car after he fled.
In 2004, the Reverend Jesse Jackson stated: “I will never believe that James Earl Ray had the motive, the money and the mobility to have done it himself. Our government was very involved in setting the stage for and I think the escape route for James Earl Ray.”
In Memphis, everyone has a story, a whisper about what really happened. There are those who claim that Dr King never intended to stay at the Lorraine Motel, but instead wanted to stay in a hotel at the Mississippi River which was not overlooked. It is claimed that the FBI told him to stay at the Lorraine instead for his own safety.
Many believe that the civil rights movement had become so powerful that it was infiltrated by government, who orchestrated the assassination from within.
Standing here in Memphis, what is clear is that a giant of a man was felled by that one bullet – a man whose legacy does indeed live on.
Perhaps for many of us, James Earl Ray was just too ordinary a criminal to have ended such an extraordinary life. Maybe he got lucky that day when he lifted his rifle as he stood on one foot hanging out the window of a building he had never been in before.
Perhaps the wind was with his bullet as it careered through the air and made its way straight for the jugular of one of the most-famous preachers on the planet.
And perhaps, 50 years on, that is all there is to it.
But many believe we should have a look at the FBI files on King’s assassination – due to be released in 2027 – which contain the information about how the FBI targeted Dr King when he was alive.
It is known that J Edgar Hoover successfully applied to have King’s phone wire-tapped, but other information is hidden in the files.
In his book, The Plot to Kill King, released in advance of the 50th anniversary, former attorney William Pepper refutes the case against Ray and claims that Hoover led a government conspiracy to kill King with the help of southern Mafia figures.
The research throws ‘Raul’ back into the mix, saying he was a fixer for Ray who organised everything, including his escape.
Interestingly, he claims that there were army snipers on the roof of the Lorraine Motel and that the lethal shot was fired by a professional. Maybe my gut instinct isn’t so bad after all.