Just after 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was fatally shot while standing on the balcony outside his room on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The civil rights leader was in Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers and was on his way to dinner when a bullet hit him in the jaw and severed his spinal cord. King was pronounced dead after arriving at a Memphis hospital. He was 39 years old.
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In the months leading up to his assassination, Martin Luther King became increasingly concerned with the problem of economic inequalities in America. He organized a campaign for the poor to focus on the issue, including a march on Washington, and in March 1968 he traveled to Memphis to support poorly treated African-American sanitation workers. On March 28, a workers’ protest march led by King resulted in violence and the death of an African-American teenager. King has left town but has vowed to return in early April to lead another protest.
On April 3, back in Memphis, King delivered his final sermon saying, “We have difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I went to the top of the mountain … And He let me go up the mountain. And I looked over, and I saw the Promised Land. I might not be with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will come to the promised land.
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A day after uttering these words, Dr King was shot dead by a sniper. As news of the assassination spread, riots broke out in cities across the United States and National Guard troops were deployed to Memphis and Washington, DC On April 9, King was laid to rest in his city native of Atlanta, Georgia. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to pay their respects to the king’s coffin as it passed in a wooden farm cart pulled by two mules.
On the night of King’s murder, a Remington .30-06 shotgun was found on the sidewalk next to a rooming house one block from the Lorraine Motel. Over the next several weeks, the rifle, eyewitness reports, and fingerprints on the gun all implicated a single suspect: the escaped convict James Earl Ray. A two-bit criminal, Ray escaped a Missouri jail in April 1967 while serving time for a hold-up. 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 ultimate 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 appeared before a Memphis judge in March 1969 and pleaded guilty to King 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 erected as a patsy in a larger plot. He claimed that in 1967, a mysterious man named “Raoul” approached him and recruited him into a gun shooting business. On April 4, 1968, he said, he realized he was going to be the fall guy for the King’s assassination and fled to Canada. Ray’s petition was denied, as were his dozens of other trial requests over the next 29 years.
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During the 1990s, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow and children spoke publicly in support of Ray and his claims, calling him innocent and speculating on an assassination plot involving the government and the American army. The American authorities were, in the minds of the conspirators, involved in a circumstantial way. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with King, whom he believed to be under Communist influence. Over the last six years of his life, King has been constantly bugged and harassed by the FBI. Prior to his death, Dr King was also under surveillance by US Military Intelligence, who may have been asked to watch King after publicly denouncing the Vietnam War in 1967. Additionally, calling for sweeping economic reforms by 1968, including guaranteed annual incomes for all, King made few new friends in the Cold War-era US government.
Over the years, the assassination has been reviewed by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, Shelby County, Tennessee, the District Attorney’s Office, and three times by the US Department of Justice. The investigations all ended with the same conclusion: James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King. The House committee acknowledged that a low-level conspiracy may have existed, involving one or more accomplices of Ray, but found no evidence to definitively prove this theory. In addition to the mountain of evidence against him – like his fingerprints on the murder weapon and his confessed presence at the rooming house on April 4 – Ray had a definite motive in murdering King: hatred. According to his family and friends, he was an openly racist who informed them of his intention to kill Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He died in 1998.
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