Just after 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. is fatally
shot while standing on the balcony outside his second-story room at
the Motel Lorraine in Memphis, Tennessee. The civil rights leader was
in Memphis to support a sanitation workers´ strike and was on his way
to dinner when a bullet struck him in the jaw and severed his spinal
cord. King was pronounced dead after his arrival at a Memphis
hospital. He was 39 years old.
In the months before his assassination, Martin Luther King became
increasingly concerned with the problem of economic inequality in
America. He planned an interracial "Poor People´s March" on Washington
and in March 1968 had traveled to Memphis in support of poorly treated
African-American sanitation workers. On March 28, a workers´ protest
march led by King ended in violence and the death of an
African-American teenager. King left the city but vowed to return in
early April to lead another demonstration.
On April 3, back in Memphis, King gave his last sermon, saying, "We´ve
got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn´t matter with me
now. Because I´ve been to the mountaintop. And I don´t mind. Like
anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place.
But I´m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God´s will.
And he´s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I´ve looked over,
and I´ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I
want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised
One day after speaking those words, Dr. King was shot and killed by a
sniper. As word of the assassination spread, riots broke out in cities
all across the United States and National Guard troops were deployed
in Memphis and Washington, D.C. On April 9, King was laid to rest in
his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Tens of thousands of people lined
the streets to pay tribute to King´s casket as it passed by in a
wooden farm cart drawn by a single mule.
The evening of King´s murder, a Remington .30-06 hunting rifle was
found on the sidewalk beside a rooming house one block from the
Lorraine Motel. During the next several weeks, the rifle, eyewitness
reports, and fingerprints on the weapon all implicated a single
suspect: escaped convict James Earl Ray. A two-bit criminal, Ray
escaped a Missouri prison in April 1967 while serving a sentence for a
holdup. In May 1968, a massive manhunt for Ray began. The FBI
eventually determined that he had obtained a Canadian passport under a
false identity, which at the time was relatively easy.
On June 8, Scotland Yard investigators arrested Ray at a London
airport. He was trying to fly to Belgium, with the eventual goal, he
later admitted, of reaching Rhodesia. Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe,
was at the time ruled by an oppressive and internationally condemned
white minority government. Extradited to the United States, Ray stood
before a Memphis judge in March 1969 and pleaded guilty to King´s
murder in order to avoid the electric chair. He was sentenced to 99
years in prison.
Three days later, he attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming
he was innocent of King´s assassination and had been set up as a patsy
in a larger conspiracy. He claimed that in 1967, a mysterious man
named "Raoul" had approached him and recruited him into a gunrunning
enterprise. On April 4, 1968, he said, he realized that he was to be
the fall guy for the King assassination and fled to Canada. Ray´s
motion was denied, as were his dozens of other requests for a trial
during the next 29 years.
During the 1990s, the widow and children of Martin Luther King Jr.
spoke publicly in support of Ray and his claims, calling him innocent
and speculating about an assassination conspiracy involving the U.S.
government and military. U.S. authorities were, in conspiracists´
minds, implicated circumstantially. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover
obsessed over King, who he thought was under communist influence. For
the last six years of his life, King underwent constant wiretapping
and harassment by the FBI. Before his death, Dr. King was also
monitored by U.S. military intelligence, which may have been asked to
watch King after he publicly denounced the Vietnam War in 1967.
Furthermore, by calling for radical economic reforms in 1968,
including guaranteed annual incomes for all, King was making few new
friends in the Cold War-era U.S. government.
Over the years, the assassination has been reexamined by the House
Select Committee on Assassinations, the Shelby County, Tennessee,
district attorney´s office, and three times by the U.S. Justice
Department. The investigations all ended with the same conclusion:
James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King. The House committee
acknowledged that a low-level conspiracy might have existed, involving
one or more accomplices to Ray, but uncovered no evidence to
definitively prove this theory. In addition to the mountain of
evidence against him--such as his fingerprints on the murder weapon
and his admitted presence at the rooming house on April 4--Ray had a
definite motive in assassinating King: hatred. According to his family
and friends, he was an outspoken racist who informed them of his
intent to kill Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He died in 1998.