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In retrospect: King assassination stirs controversy 50 years later


“We were deeply saddened by the death today of Mr. James Earl Ray. This is a tragedy, not only for Mr. Ray and his family, but also for the entire nation. America will never have the benefit of Mr. Ray’s trial, which would have produced new revelations about the assassination of Martin Luther King.”

—From a condolence statement

by Coretta Scott King, April 1998.

The widow of a murder victim extending a gesture of sympathy to the man responsible for her husband’s death is an oddity. But then, the saga of James Earl Ray is no ordinary tale. A petty criminal whose specialty seems to have been a knack for getting caught in the wake of whatever misdeeds he committed, Ray was deemed responsible for single handedly ending the life of King, a major social transformer of modern history. Forgoing a trial by jury, he chose to avoid the death penalty by pleading guilty (which he recanted days later) and received a life sentence.

This tragedy, along with the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy are intertwined in American history, symbolic of the growing pains of the country as it struggled with the acceptance of alternative ideas and lifestyles, and a clarification of the precepts the nation was founded upon.

Pay, benefits and workplace protection

“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”

—Martin Luther King

In February 1968, two Black sanitation workers were crushed to death by a garbage trucker compactor. This and years of inhuman working conditions led to a strike, abetted by local ministers led by the Rev. James Lawson, a King ally. King, in the midst of planning a “Poor People’s Campaign” later that summer in Washington, D.C., was summoned to Memphis briefly, to give a speech to rally the strikers.

King was transitioning from his earlier push for civil rights and desegregation to a quest for economic equality, reasoning that the key to a level playing field for Blacks was securing a respectable wage to provide a comfortable living. This lay at the center of both the Poor People’s Campaign and the sanitation strike. The success of each, in his words would result in “…a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life.”

Leaving town after his talk, he returned to Memphis on April 3 to lead a series of protest marches. Initially he was slated to stay on the ground floor of the Lorraine Motel, a landmark that hosted such luminaries as Nat King Cole, Isaac Hayes, and Otis Redding. Attorney and author William Pepper relates three separate accounts about how the reservation was changed from the more secure Room 202 on the ground floor to the more exposed Room 306 on the second floor.

In any event, a little before 6 p.m. on April 4, King stepped out of Room 306 on to the balcony preparing to go to dinner. There he was hit in the jaw and neck by a.30-06 rifle bullet, and was transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 7:05 P.M.

The news ignited rioting in more than 100 cities and towns across the United States, as a manhunt was launched across the nation and five foreign countries for the assailant. Two months later, James Earl Ray was apprehended at Heathrow Airport in London, England.

Seeking out a conspiracy

“People find it very hard to believe that such a great man could be brought down by such a hollow and puny person. I think that we want to believe that it takes some kind of massive conspiracy of hundreds of people to bring down one person. But it’s just not the case.”

—Hampton Sides, author of

“Hellhound on his Trail”

William F. Pepper came to the attention of Martin Luther King with the publication of his Ramparts Magazine photo essay “The Children of Vietnam,” in 1967 ( JFK/ChildrenOfVietnam.html). The images and text depicting the impact of the war on its civilian population was a compelling motivation for King’s decision to oppose the war. For the last year of the civil right’s leader’s life, Pepper was a trusted friend and ally, and afterwards made the monumental decision to represent Ray (whom he maintains was a patsy) in a 1993 “mock” trial in a courtroom setting televised by HBO.

Broadcast on the 25th anniversary of the April 4 assassination under the title “Guilt or Innocence: The Trial of James Earl Ray,” it was taped at Memphis’ Shelby County Courthouse, with Ray testifying via a live satellite hookup from his lockup at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. Curiously ignored by the major media, Ray was exonerated (but remained incarcerated) in this legal simulation; a verdict embraced by the rest of the King family (see the complete transcripts at

Pepper is part of a long line of independent investigators attracted to the King killing, including attorney Mark Lane and comedian Dick Gregory, who collaborated on the 1978 expose “Code Name: Zero.” Others who’ve disputed the official verdict include the late Steve Cokely, the leading African American conspiracy buff.

Pepper is possibly best known for representing the King family in a 1999 civil suit which found the United States government guilty of scheming to terminate the upstart preacher in a “mock trial.”

The family received $100 to cover legal expenses as they received confirmation that their patriarch was a victim of a multi-tiered governmental conspiracy.

In the interim, Pepper has written three books to support his reasoning: “Orders to Kill (1995), “An Act of State (2008)”, and 2017’s “The Plot to Kill King.”

Now an emeritus minister and college professor, James Lawson states that the rash of mid century assassinations (including Medgar Evers in 1963) changed the country decisively. Lawson personally participated with Peppers in an independent investigation on Ray’s behalf (he calls both “men of intelligence and integrity”), and went as far as presiding over James Earl Ray’s 1998 funeral.

As this article was finalized, Lawson was in the process of reading “The Plot to Kill King,” and concurs with most of its revelations. Aside from Pepper’s work, Lawson cites 2009’s “The 13th Juror: The Official Transcript of the Martin Luther King Assassination Conspiracy Trial” (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform), as proof “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that Ray did not plan or pull the trigger in the King murder. This sentiment is shared by the King family and key associates within the civil rights movement.

Recently, the nation was shocked by the news that photographer and close King associate, Ernest Withers, was disclosed to be a FBI informant. In that era of the FBI’s COUINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram) such covert operatives were common in the quest to contain those labeled as subversive to the government. In “The Plot to Kill King,” Pepper maintains two highly placed members of King’s inner circle (possibly paid minions of the FBI) were instrumental in moving the minister from his secure room on the ground floor of the Lorraine Motel, to the exposed second floor unit where he was executed.

This was just part of an elaborate plot involving undercover Memphis policemen (Merrell McCullough, captured in the iconic photo of the murder knelling over King, he later gained employment with the CIA), organized crime syndicate, the “Dixie Mafia,” army intelligence, and elements of a Green Beret sniper unit called “Alpha 184” (Pepper was successfully sued for libel in a 1997 South Carolina court by an ex-fireman to the tune of $ 11 million over allegations that he was part of the plot to kill the civil rights leader).

Pepper’s most damming claim holds that King was still alive upon reaching St. Joseph’s Hospital, and emergency room staff there administered the “coup de grâce,” by removing the apparatus helping the patient breathe, and suffocating him with a pillow. This supposedly came from relatives of hospital workers who were present on the evening of April 4.

Equality for all and violence towards none

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

—Martin Luther King

Toward the end of his life, King spoke about “America’s spiritual death,” as it directed its resources to the Cold War and imperialist expansion around the globe, turning a blind eye to issues at home.

One-half century later, as America rekindles animosity against North Korea and the hurricane ravaged isle of Puerto Rico waits in vain for assistance relief, we move further away from King’s dream and into the spiritual wasteland.