Retracing the hunt for MLK's killer

Authorities escort James Earl Ray to the Shelby County jail, Memphis, Tenn., in 1968. AP/Shelby County Register's Office

Forty-three years ago tomorrow, the FBI launched a world-wide manhunt ... a full-scale pursuit of an assassin whose single shot had just brought down a man who held no office but whose vision and courage changed the course of American history. Mark Strassmann will look back at a crime that shocked the nation:


The year 1968 remains a turning point in the story of America: A time when the country seemed to be spinning out of control.

We found ourselves divided by race, by generation, by politics ... and so much of that turmoil can be traced back to a single day: April 4, 1968, when a sniper's bullet took the life of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

For the next 48 hours, the nation burned ... riots swept 168 cities - federal troops were even called in to guard the U.S. Capitol. At least 19 persons had been killed. The annual Academy Awards was postponed, as were the opening games of the American League & National League.

Yet as the firestorm raged, the man at the center of it all was making a quiet getaway.

It took two months and the largest manhunt in U.S. history to track down the killer - a man named James Earl Ray.

New photos of MLK's killer
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Yet, even now, the motives - and the man - behind the assassination remain very much a mystery, which is probably just how James Earl Ray would have wanted it.

Author Hampton Sides has spent more than two years compiling a detailed portrait of Ray - untangling the web of false identities and conflicting claims spun by a man who spent most of his adult life behind prison bars.

"I describe Ray a little bit like a squid," said Sides. "You know, he puts up this ink cloud around him of all this complexity of personality. And by the time you figure out where he is, he's actually gone."

Although he plead guilty to King's murder, hoping to avoid the death penalty, Ray changed his story almost immediately. For the rest of his life, he professed his innocence, as he did in a 1977 interview with Dan Rather:

"Someone would have to be insane killing someone for publicity," Ray said. "To me, it is - I can't conceive of anyone. There is people like that, but I can't imagine anyone wanting that type of publicity."

"You didn't do it?" Rather asked.

"No, I didn't do it."

Sides has "no doubt whatsoever" that Ray killed Dr. King.

"It was all a big game to him," he said. "And he went to his grave [with] a lot of of secrets and half-secrets and lies and half-lies all muddled up together."

James Earl Ray was born and raised in poverty along the banks of the Mississippi River. He was considered the brightest among nine siblings, but devoted himself to a life of petty crime - winding up in Missouri State Prison for armed robbery.

That is, until early one morning in 1967 when Ray made a daring escape - hiding in a shipment of bread from the prison bakery.

He embarked on a restless journey across Mexico and the United States.

"There's a sense of almost desperation when he's out of prison," said Sides. "He gets into self-help books, hypnosis. He takes a locksmithing class, dancing lessons. He thinks he might want to become a porn director. He's all these different people.

"But, you know, he's still the same guy underneath it all. A very disturbed and very lost soul trying to figure out his place in the world."

"Somebody who constantly felt like a nobody?" Strassmann asked.

"Felt like a nobody. Wanted to be somebody. Didn't want to be just sort of a number in a prison system."

Although by nature a loner, in 1968 the fugitive Ray became an active volunteer for George Wallace's bid for the presidency.

The former Governor of Alabama - a die-hard segregationist - appealed to many like Ray for whom racism was a simple fact of life.

"I think demagogues often fail to understand what their poison does," said Sides. "They create an environment where lost souls can feel like they're empowered to do something like this, and that, you know, the culture will smile on their crime."

Contrast Wallace's 1968 campaign to the one being waged by Martin Luther King Jr. After years of civil rights success, King had turned his attentions to the issue of poverty in America.

"We must always make it clear that in our society there is a violence of poverty, a violence of slums," Dr. King said. "There is the violence of inferior education, and it is a kind of psychological and spiritual violence that's much more injurious than the external physical violence that we see."

When the black garbage collectors of Memphis, Tenn., went on strike to protest low wages and inhumane conditions, King came to help.

"When Dr. King came here, there was a light that was shined into the the darkness," said the Rev. Leslie Moore - one of the striking workers whose plain-worded statement - "I am a man" - gripped King's conscience.

"That sign that we wore back in '68, 'I'm a man, they was men, we was men, we stood up,' that song stuck in our heart," he said. "That song stuck on our side. That song stuck in our minds. Ain't gonna let nobody turn us around."

"I just want to do God's will," Dr. King said on April 3, 1968. "I've seen the promised land - I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will reach the promised land."

In early spring 1968, Ray began to shadow King's movements across the south. And while King lead rallies, Ray prepared for the crime, buying a powerful Remington deer hunting rifle with a magnifying scope.

On April 4, armed with information from the local papers, Ray found a cheap rooming house directly across an alley from King's Memphis motel - just 200 feet from his room door.

While King and his entourage wrangled for a permit to stage a march, Ray spied on them with a pair of binoculars.

And then, a little before six p.m. that same night, Ray saw his chance ...

"He looked out the back of his window, there is King standing here completely exposed," said Sides. "I think that a lot of people don't understand he had no bodyguards, he had no police detail. He didn't want any of those things because it sort of violated his sense of Gandhian ethics to have someone in his entourage with a weapon or anything like that. He had no protection whatsoever."

"The closeness of the window, the length of time Dr. King stood here - this is a sniper's dream," said Strassmann.

"A sniper's dream," said Sides. "But for this, that or the other, would have been completely different."

It took just one shot.

While witnesses pointed towards the rooming house window, Ray wrapped the rifle and his belongings in a blanket and dashed for the door.

But he spotted a police car nearby, dropped his bundle, and fled in his car.

Memphis Police Lt. James Papia was on the scene within minutes.

"I was just kind of playing a hunch," he said. "I was aware of this rooming house up here and it was an elevated position where, you know, a shot could be fired."

Papia believes that Ray - who had served in the Army - could have easily targeted King, and given the distance, "Not hard at all for somebody that can shoot a rifle. It'd be a easy shot."

While Ray seemed to have made a clean getaway, he had left behind all the evidence that would later convince him to take a guilty plea.

Wrapped in that blanket was not only the murder weapon - with Ray's fingerprints - but underwear with laundry tags traced to him, and his transistor radio, personalized with his prison ID number from the Missouri penitentiary.

While the FBI lab analyzed the evidence, field agents hunted desperately for the man.

The FBI's chief, J. Edgar Hoover, had long viewed King as a trouble-maker - his movement a threat to law and order.

But Hoover's reputation was on the line, and the FBI's efforts to get Ray were relentless.

"During the 65 days that he's on the lam, he's the most wanted man in America," said Sides. "So this guy who had craved anonymity all his life has suddenly got all the attention he could handle."

Ray made it to Canada, where he managed to obtain a fraudulent passport.

From there, he traveled to Britain and Portugal, hoping to find passage to the white-dominated African nation of Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe).

Sides speculates that Ray hoped to collect on the numerous bounties that racists had placed on the life of Dr. King: "I think his thinking was that he would get to Rhodesia, a place that had no extradition treaty with the United States; that the Rhodesians would smile on his crime and he'd be welcomed as a hero; and then he could work on connecting with the bounty money that might be out there. He just didn't have time."

After two months on the run, Ray's luck ran-out: he had been desperate for money, and robbed a bank in London. He was caught trying to board a plane with a pistol.

On June 8, 1968, the manhunt was over.

In the years that followed, conspiracy theories flourished about Ray's motives - though Ray pointedly denied that he was a contract killer.

"That'd be out of my league," he said in the interview with Dan Rather. "I don't have the constitution for that type of stuff - I don't say that as a virtue; actually it might be a handicap in this type of society."

Still, he offered no credible explanation for his actions, and even tried to break out of prison four more times.

James Earl Ray died of liver failure in 1998, while serving 99 years for the assassination of Dr. King. He maintained his innocence to the end.

Some skeptics still cling to alternate explanations, but author Hampton Sides believes the truth behind the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., is far simpler.

"People find it very hard to believe that such a great man could be brought down by such a hollow and puny person," Sides said. "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."

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