Skip to content

King and Ray: Two men on a collision course


“…the FBI picked Ray for the role as patsy based upon his personal characteristics that were required for the profile they had created: A vulnerable and malleable White man with only a nominal education, few marketable skills and a criminal past who could be portrayed as a Southern racist, a man who hated Blacks and wanted the recognition of being a famed assassin (though none of the above was true, other than his being an uneducated White man with a history of petty crimes).”

—Phillip F. Nelson,
in an interview with Our Weekly.

It seemed like an open-and-shut case. The foremost social activist of the century gunned down by a lone bigot, a dogmatic extremist determined to halt the wheels of progress eroding the segregationist policies of the southern United States.

By 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had eclipsed the cycle of celebrity in his native country and transitioned into the pantheon of the world stage after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. As such, his life became infinitely more complicated as he was pulled in numerous directions by myriad factions within the civil rights movement, militant and moderate, who wanted his celebrity and political cache to help their individual endeavors in the grand campaign for equality across the nation.

In the city of Memphis, Tenn. the plight of the city’s garbage collectors was especially dire. On top of low wages and substandard working conditions, hazardous safety conditions abounded. The deaths of two garbage collectors on Feb. 1, 1968 by a malfunctioning truck sparked a strike by 1300 sanitation workers, and local minister James M. Lawson prevailed on his old colleague Rev. King to intervene.

James Earl Ray, the man eventually sentenced for King’s murder, was brought up in hardscrabble environments in Illinois and Missouri to a family embroiled in the pursuit of petty crime. Young James worked diligently to avoid this legacy of delinquency before joining the army. Like all recruits, he took basic rifle training, but received an early discharge for “ineptness and lack of adaptability.”

During his brief (1946-48) enlistment however, he was stationed in West Germany where he served as a Military Policeman (MP). At this time, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the espionage service that helped win the war, was morphing into what is now the Central Intelligence Agency.

Years afterwards, Ray’s brother, John Larry Ray, collaborated with historian Lyndon Barsten on the book “Truth At Last: The Untold Story behind James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” (2008). In it, they uncovered evidence that James had been subjected to narco-hypnotic experimentation in the fledgling technology of “brainwashing” or mind control. More specifically, this hapless soldier was administered two lumbar puncture procedures (or what would become known as “spinal taps”) in 1948. Spinal taps can be used to administer psychiatric drugs into the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

Shortly afterwards, in the commission of his duties as an MP, he was ordered to shoot (and subsequently cripple) a Black soldier named Washington, who was in the process of going AWOL. This episode haunted Ray for the rest of his life, according to Barsten.

Phillip F. Nelson, author of “Who Really Killed Martin Luther King, Jr.” (2018), documents this: “…James Earl Ray had been subjected to the CIA’s MK-ULTRA mind-control program in the late-1940s when he served in the Army in Germany.”

Nelson believes that Ray’s records might have included interpretations of his psychological makeup for later, clandestine missions.

Den of Iniquity

“We knew the whole country was a tinderbox.”

—Ralph M. Stein,
Pentagon intelligence analyst, in 1968.

The Memphis that King visited was a town with its own unique quirks and rhythms. Frank C. Holloman, the newly appointed Director of Fire and Police for Memphis, was a retired FBI agent who worked directly with its Director J. Edgar Hoover from 1949 to 1959. The department had an on-going relationship with the “Dixie Mafia,” a loose confederation of criminals operating throughout the Great Plains and in the Southeastern United States.

Meanwhile, Ray having separated from the military, turned to the only vocation he knew, as in Nelson’s words “…an uneducated White man with a history of petty crimes.”

“After he left the service, he had then been continually monitored, so his record of robberies and petty crimes was known to the CIA and FBI.”

Subsisting on the spoils of burglary and strong-armed robbery, Ray served time in the penal systems of Kansas, Illinois, and Missouri before he escaped from prison in 1967, as Nelson elaborates:

“…by 1967, the FBI picked Ray for the role as patsy based upon his personal characteristics that were required for the profile they had created:  A vulnerable and malleable white man with only a nominal education, few marketable skills and a criminal past who could be portrayed as a Southern racist, a man who hated Blacks (a complete fabrication, in the view of many familiar with him).

Among the entities congregating in Memphis were elements from the 111th Military Intelligence Group from Fort McPherson, near Atlanta, Ga. Special agents from that unit acknowledged they were monitoring King’s movements in a story from the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal that was reprinted in the Dec. 22, 1997 edition of Jet Magazine. They denied any involvement with the actual murder itself.

Clayborne Carson of Stanford University has, since 1985, been custodian of the Martin Luther King Papers Project, a collection entrusted to him by the activist’s widow, Coretta Scott King. At this point in the Cold War, he remembers, the fear of communist infiltration permeated the country, with hysteria reaching up into the rafters of the executive branch.

After the Detroit riots (1967), military intelligence units swarmed every major American city.  As Carson notes, this domestic unrest, coupled with the escalating war in Vietnam, created high levels of anxiety within the federal and military apparatus, leading to this increased scrutiny of possible trouble points. Rumors of communist infestation reached the inner circle of Dr. King’s group as well.

Setting the Trap

“…both Ray and Dr. King were eventually ‘lured’ to Memphis. And they were both marked for murder there on April 4, 1968.”

—Phillip F. Nelson, author of “Who Really Killed Martin Luther King, Jr.”

King was coerced into checking into the Lorraine Motel, a Black owned business. He initially was placed into a room on the bottom floor, which for security purposes was more desirable. Within his inner circle however, the decision was made to put him in the more exposed Room # 306 on the second floor.

After his prison escape, Ray bounced around the country, eventually coming under the sway of a man in Montreal, Canada, who went by the name “Raoul.”

“Ray was assisted all along the way by FBI and CIA operatives who guided him first into going to Canada, where he was soon contacted by a mysterious man named “Raoul,” Nelson says.

“From there, his FBI handlers, through Raoul, moved him to the Mexican border, where he began smuggling guns into Mexico and drugs back into the U.S. In November, 1967, Ray was instructed to go to Los Angeles, get an apartment and await further instructions, and during that time Raoul paid him to remain available for further ‘jobs.’”

Paths Collide

“At one point the fireman said to Lenny (Curtis), “How would you like that scoundrel, that baby there?” When Lenny said it was a rifle like any other, he replied, “No, this is a special one, that baby is special.”

—from “The Plot to Kill King,”
2016 by William F. Pepper.

Lenny B. Curtis was a custodian for the Memphis Police, who worked in their gun range. Years later, at the invitation of William Pepper, a colleague of King during the last year of his life and the last attorney of record for Ray, he submitted to a recorded deposition on April 3, 2003. Present during this session was Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the slain civil rights icon, and another lawyer, Lewis Garrison, who conducted the interview.

Curtis recalled that on April 4, 1968, he observed a particular policeman practicing with this “special rifle” all day. Curtis also heard this man utter remarks to the effect that King was going to get his “…brains blowed out.”

King was in a jovial mood as he dressed for dinner. His weaknesses included a fondness for nice suits, good whiskey, and rich food, particularly soul food. He stepped out of his room at about 6 p.m., admonishing his fellows about not wearing ties for supper.

At about 6:01 p.m., a .30-06 (pronounced 30-aught-six) bullet entered his right cheek shattering his jaw, traveling through his neck to sever his spinal cord. Among those rushing to his side was one Marrell McCullough, a member of a Black Panther-styled militant group called ‘The Invaders.” He would later be revealed as an undercover operative for the Memphis Police Department, and still later gain employment with the CIA, serving on the African continent.

James Earl Ray by now had been directed to Memphis, as Phil Nelson picks up the story.

“…Ray decided to leave the scene of the crime to refuel his car (a white Ford Mustang) and attempt to get the spare tire fixed; that was what prevented his own execution at the scene by a waiting policeman (as planned by his handlers), just minutes after Dr. King was shot, as Ray sat waiting for Raoul as he had been instructed.”

Upon seeing all the sirens and commotion set in place by the shooting, Ray panicked and drove south to Atlanta, beginning his flight from justice. Story continues next week.