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James Earl Ray was the perfect man to fit the description of King's murderer. He was a white, racist, petty criminal, an army throw-away, a nobody trying to make a name for himself. He left the perfect evidence behind as well, a rifle with his prints, and a personal radio with his prison ID engraved on it. James was also quite an unstable individual. At his own request, in 1966 Ray began psychological counseling to quiet the voices in his head (Gribben 2005). It turned out to be something of a mistake, because the authorities that had watched him do his time quietly with only that one rule violation learned they had a neurotic, obsessive-compulsive paranoid on their hands.
James Earl Ray managed to stay out of trouble as a child -- a little truant, perhaps, but generally not a bad kid. He had it rough; his family was poor, they moved around frequently, thanks to a couple of shiftless relatives that made life difficult in the small towns in the Midwest the family lived in. He was accused of theft in the sixth grade, and by the time he was 15, he had had enough of school. He got his first taste of prison life after joining the Army and getting sent to Germany in the years following World War II. Seems James liked to drink and got himself arrested by the MPs on a drunk and disorderly charge. He was sentenced to 90 days hard labor in the stockade (Gribben 2005). When he got out of the service, he began drifting around and spending a few nights in jail for vagrancy. His first big arrest came in 1949 and he served eight months in a California jail for burglary (Fisher 2006). In 1952, he did two years for an armed robbery of a taxi driver in Illinois (Fisher 2006). With all of these facts it would seem that James was the most probable suspect, but one would be wrong to make those generalizations without the whole picture.
Doubts about Earl being the assassin of King have been widespread since almost directly after the time that King was murdered. Many have speculated that the FBI, especially J. Edgar Hoover, was involved in the murder of Martin Luther King. J. Edgar Hoover had a strong contempt for Martin Luther King. Hoover wasn't necessarily a racist; he just hated anybody who challenged his almost omnipotent power over the American justice system (Lane 58).
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We Had files counterintelligence files where you had to periodically submit schemes for counterintelligence. I had a guy, working under me, to whom this intelligence file was assigned Any kind of scheme would do it didn't make a difference. They were directed against the Klan as well as against blacks in civil rights, but mostly against the blacks... The bureau had a penchant for foraged letters, and for attacking people on a sex angle. (Lane 67)
Sexual black-mail was attempted on King with direct evidence of Hoover's involvement. A microphone was concealed at a party where King was present and allegedly "sexual noises" were recorded. The tape was planned on being sent to Loretta King, Martin Luther King's wife, in an attempt to ruin his reputation (Lane 70). His wife received the tape, but it was a poor black-mail attempt. Loretta gave Martin the tape, and he knew after that moment that he could not trust the FBI.
Another interesting FBI mission was the "Destroy King" plan (Melanson 75). It apparently originated mostly out of the Atlanta office but also came out of New York and Washington field offices. Many other offices were also speculated to have been involved. According to agent Murtagh of the FBI " There was a crew of people who did almost nothing for a period of seven or eight years, except investigate King and try to destroy him." (Lane 91) The FBI had apparently tapped many locations that King frequented in order to obtain information for black-mail or other resources. King was even reportedly bugged in Sweden when he collected his Noble Prize. Concerted efforts were made to humiliate King in any way. Luckily those efforts fell very short.
King spent the evening of April 3 into the early hours of April 4 in a strategy session with aides, and at about 4:30 a.m. he returned to the Lorraine where his brother, the Rev. A.D. Williams King, Georgia Davis and Lucie Ward met him (Gribben 2005). The two brothers spent about a half-hour with the women before Martin Luther King Jr. returned to the room he was sharing with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Thirty minutes after returning to his room, King once again met with Davis in a separate room. He remained there for about an hour before returning to his own room.
It was not until the early afternoon that King emerged from the hotel room, as Andrew Young went to court instead of King to fight the restraining order. King spent much of the afternoon with Davis, his brother, Ward and Abernathy. Sometime between 5:30 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. Abernathy and Davis disagree on the time King and Abernathy returned to their own hotel room to change for dinner. The entire group was headed for a meal at the home of a local minister, the Rev. Billy Kyles (Lane 100).
At 6 p.m., King and Abernathy emerged from their second-story room onto the balcony of the Lorraine (Lane 101). King initiated a conversation with his driver, Solomon Jones, about the weather and Jones advised King to grab a coat, as the weather was turning chilly. King acknowledged Jones' comment and started to turn toward his room. At that instant, Jones later told authorities that he heard a sound he assumed to be a firecracker and noticed King falling to the floor of the balcony. Jones called for help and King's aides, who were all nearby, rushed to the stricken civil rights leader.
The bullet struck King near his jaw, fracturing his lower mandible, severing the jugular vein, vertebral and subclavian arteries and shattering several vertebrae in his neck and back. There was nothing that could be done and Dr. Martin Luther King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph Hospital at 7:05 p.m. (Gribben 2005)
Police security around Dr. King had been tight for the two days he was in Memphis in April. He had been under constant surveillance by at least two police officers who did not travel with King's party; instead, they maintained a constant watch over King's activities. During most of this surveillance, two of the four officers who held the 24-hour vigil around King's group were black: Detective Edward E. Redditt and Patrolman Willie B. Richmond (Lane 105) .
At the time of the shooting, Redditt had been removed from duty because an anonymous caller to the Memphis Police Department had made a threat against Redditt and his family. Most likely because of the detective's perceived actions as part of the "establishment." He would find out later that the information was obviously false. At 4 p.m. April 4, Redditt left the scene of the surveillance Memphis Fire Station No. 2, which provided a secure place from which to observe King's party. When the shots were fired, Richmond was still on duty at Fire Station No. 2, and reported hearing the shots. Richmond observed King fall to the floor of the balcony, and alerted both a tactical police unit nearby and Memphis Police headquarters. He was ordered to remain at the fire station while other officers responded to the Lorraine. Shortly afterward, Richmond was ordered to police headquarters to make a detailed report of his observations.
All in all, the Memphis police botched the dragnet. They never put out an all-points bulletin to the Mississippi or Arkansas police despite the fact that Arkansas is less than 15 minutes from Memphis and Mississippi only a little further. Even though police throughout Memphis and Tennessee were looking for a white man in a Mustang, their Arkansas and Mississippi counterparts were blissfully unaware of any assassin in their midst. Or were they?
Evidence is has been very suspicious in the case. Numerous people at the crime scene reported seeing two white mustangs. Ray would have also have to have been a very stupid individual to have dropped the evidence in plain sight right at the crime scene. The way the evidence was presented looks characteristically like a frame. There is also the shady character of Rauol, which Ray reported as selling him the arms, that seems to be involved somehow. The main hole though is that it took several weeks for the FBI to confirm Ray's fingerprints on the items and that the box of supposed bullets along with Ray's alleged hotel room did not have any of his fingerprints (Fisher 2006).
Whatever your position is on King's assassin, there are holes and connections everywhere in the crime. Could King have been killed by the government or was it just a racist sociopath that got the best of him. Whatever your stance, either perpetrator failed, King's influence has lived on even after his life ended forever.
Works Cited Ash, Philip. "The Implications of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 For Psychological Assessment in Industry." American-Psychologist 6 (1966): 797-803.
Ginsberg, Benjamin, and Theodore J. Lowi, eds. American Government-Freedom and Power. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.
Mooney, Chase C. "Civil Rights Movement." Encyclopedia Americana. 1996 ed.
Shipler, David K. "The Marshall Plan." The New York Times Book Review 1 June 1998: 12-13 Watters, Pat.
"The Spring Offensive." The Nation 3 February 1964: 117-120.