The life of Martin Luther King, Jr, came to a sudden end on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN on April 4, 1968. On April 3, 1968, he had arrived in Memphis to help the sanitation workers who were currently on strike. The strike, which was not the first attempted strike by the sanitation workers, was sparked when two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, died when a malfunctioning truck crushed them both. The response by the city was not taken well, and with a new mayor that year who had notably made things worse for the sanitation workers by not taking bad trucks out of service, it should be no surprise. The union, which had been started a few years earlier but had not been acknowledged by those in power, had demands: recognition of their union, a decent wage, and higher safety standards. The strike was supported not only by Doctor King, but also by the NAACP. The black community truly stood up for the strike when the strikers, doing a peaceful demonstration, were teargassed and maced (Kinginstitute 2018).
When investigating the assassination, FBI investigators found 30.06 Remington Rifle in a bundle next to the boarding house across the street from where Doctor King died. At the time of the shooting, those on the balcony with him had pointed the building out as the place the shots had been fired from. Eventually, the investigation led the FBI to an apartment, where the found the fingerprints of James Earl Ray, a known criminal who had escaped prison a year earlier. There was also evidence, according to the FBI, that Ray had signed in to the South Main Street Rooming House on April 4th, and had a room with a perfect view of the Lorraine Motel. The declaration of James Earl Ray as the suspect led to an international manhunt that ended with Ray being extradited from Britain. He took a plea deal the next March, serving 99-years in prison for the assassination instead of the possible death penalty (Kinginstitute 2018).
Why did James Earl Ray assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr? Or, is it possible he wasn’t the assassin at all, but a scapegoat? Theories abound as to if he was the real killer. It is known that Ray was spotted nearby around the time of the assassination and that is finger prints were found on the gun as well as at the apartment investigators were led to. When he was arrested in Britain, it was believed he was fleeing to Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, which was reportedly a well-known safe haven for white supremacists. However, people had a hard time believing that Ray was actually the killer. After all, with his confession there was no trial, and without a trial, all the evidence against him didn’t see the light of day. Along with that, it was well known that the FBI had been following Doctor King and his followers, attempting to discredit the civil rights movement. Many believed that Ray did pull the trigger, but under the orders of someone – or some organization – outside of himself. Ray even later recanted his confession and claimed someone named “Raul” made him pull the trigger. He maintained that innocence until his death in 1998 (Waxman 2018).
Ray reiterated his professed innocence to Dexter King, Doctor King’s son, as he was dying in 1997, which prompted the King family to begin a campaign to a new trial. While Ray died in prison before the campaign could go through, but his death didn’t change anything. It was decided that the trial would not happen, as there was apparently an insurmountable amount of evidence against Ray. Due to his unreliability, to investigate Ray and decide if he really was a reasonable suspect, they had to investigate the people he associated with. His lawyer, J.B. Stoner, was known to be a white supremacist, and Ray admitted to admiring Adolf Hitler. During the 1968 presidential campaign season, Ray also advocated George Wallace, a governor who supported segregation and was at the marches at Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham to butt heads with Doctor King. While these facts point to Ray being a white supremacist who was likely against Doctor King’s message, they don’t explain the change in behavior. What happened to cause Ray to go from minor crimes, like theft and minor property damage, to assassination? That is what we still want to know (Waxman 2018).
In an attempt to find some answer, Ray’s movements leading up to the assassination were also investigated. It is known that he made a trip to New Orleans for no known reason before going to Atlanta, GA. How these trips were funded is a mystery, and fuels the theory that Ray was either part of a group or hired by one that was bent on destroying the civil rights movement. There has, however, never been any evidence found to prove this theory. There are also known gaps in what we know about his movements before the assassination, during which times he could have met with just about anyone. In the 50 years since the assassination, a continued look into the evidence has resulted in nearly nothing (Waxman 2018).
We cannot discuss Martin Luther King, Jr, without talking about an important truth: the Doctor King taught about in schools today is a watered-down version of who he truly was. In the years before his assassination, Doctor King became more radical than he had been before. He reminded those who worked for him that many white Americans were against desegregation of schools, and that white Americans had nearly annihilated Native Americans. He opposed the Vietnam War, against the suggestion of his advisors as well as against the civil rights establishment and the Johnson Administration. Doctor King brought the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to Chicago to march, where they were pelted with rocks. He reportedly regretted that he couldn’t speak openly about democratic socialism and when he brought the SCLC into his Poor People’s Campaign, he surpassed the man he used as his meter for where too far was, James Bevel (Staff 2020).
It wasn’t just at the end of his life that Doctor King began his more radical points. He was strongly against the racial disparages within American capitalism that gives to the rich and takes from the workers. He fought to change the system with his Poor People’s Campaign, aimed at changing national priorities from tax cuts and bail outs for the rich and funding the war complex, to things better for the people. Health care as a human right, ensuring every person had access to good education, and good jobs with livable wages. Doctor King was also close to President Kennedy, who sought his advice in secret after bombings at civil rights headquarters lead to a night of rioting in Birmingham, AL. Reportedly, Doctor King, who was called on a phone outside the main consultation room to keep others from knowing, advised that Kennedy condemn the bombings while he did his best to contain the rioting (Staff 2020).
Martin Luther King, Jr, was far more radical than the whitewashed, sanitized version of him taught in schools today. He was much more than the “I have a dream” speech we all hear in school. He was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, leading marches that went up the streets to state buildings. When the first Black Lives Matter protests began, the protestors did the same thing, following in Doctor King’s footsteps, and unsurprisingly people were upset and claimed they should “protest like MLK did!” without truly knowing who Doctor King was and how he protested. Do not let the naysayers deter you, if you are out at the protests fighting against injustice. You are following in Doctor King’s footsteps, and perhaps as the protests continue, we will see the dream we were all taught about come true.
“Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 21 May 2018, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/assassination-martin-luther-king-jr.
“Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 4 June 2018, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/memphis-sanitation-workers-strike.
Staff, TIME. “10 Experts on What We Get Wrong About Martin Luther King Jr.” Time, Time, 16 Jan. 2020, time.com/5197679/10-historians-martin-luther-king-jr/.
Waxman, Olivia B. “Why James Earl Ray Killed Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.” Time, Time, 3 Apr. 2018, time.com/5218982/james-earl-ray-martin-luther-king/.