10 Facts and Theories that Will Make You Rethink the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.

10 Facts and Theories that Will Make You Rethink the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.

Patrick Lynch - March 15, 2018

On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, the Civil Rights Movement, and human decency, was dealt a savage blow. On this day, the great Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered by James Earl Ray, a man who had escaped from Missouri State Penitentiary the previous year. Ray was a rabid racist and was drawn to the segregationist platform of George Wallace’s Presidential Campaign. He initially pled guilty to the murder of King, but Ray later withdrew his plea with a view to getting a trial.

However, he failed and died in prison in 1998. To this day, King’s family believes there is more to the murder than meets the eye. The family, along with other individuals, think the reverend’s death was as a result of a plot involving the United States Government. In this article, I will look at ten facts and theories surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King. Was it an open and shut murder case, or, as is allegedly the case involving the deaths of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, a detailed conspiracy?

10 Facts and Theories that Will Make You Rethink the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
Izola Ware Curry getting arrested – AJC.com

1 – King Had Survived a Previous Assassination Attempt in 1958

As tragic as King’s death was, at least he was given the opportunity to make an indelible imprint on American history. He would never have had the chance if Izola Ware Curry had her way almost a decade earlier. On September 20, 1958, the African-American woman stabbed King at a book signing in Harlem because she believed he was a communist that had been spying on her. She used a seven-inch letter opener and was just millimeters from puncturing his aorta. In fact, King would have died had he sneezed.

Ware was born in Georgia in 1916 and eventually moved to New York where she worked as a housekeeper. As she got older, Ware began to experience paranoid delusions, and it became harder to find a job. She traveled to several American cities in search of employment including Lexington, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Miami before eventually ending up back in New York in 1958. At this stage, she moved into a rented room in Harlem with no one to help prevent her descent into madness.

Ware began having delusions about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which she believed was a front for Communist activities. She started to believe that the NAACP was following her and preventing her from finding a job. As King began his rise to prominence, she began focusing on him. On the day of the attempted assassination, she walked into Blumstein’s department store where King was signing copies of Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, which was his first book.

After pushing her way to the front of the line, she asked the writer if he was Martin Luther King. When he confirmed his identity, she stabbed him with a letter opener. King was rushed to Harlem Hospital where the blade was taken out during surgery. When she was caught in the store, Ware exclaimed: “I’ve been after him for six years” and “I’m glad I done it.” She was indicted on October 17 and faced a 25-year prison sentence. However, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and committed to a mental institution near Poughkeepsie.

Ware stayed at the institution for 14 years before being moved between residential care homes for the rest of her life. She died in 2015 and left no immediate family. King later said that he bore no animosity towards Ware and spoke about the attack during his I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech on April 3, 1968. Little did he know that the very next day, a cowardly assassin’s bullet would succeed where Ware narrowly failed almost a decade earlier.

10 Facts and Theories that Will Make You Rethink the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
James Earl Ray – The Famous People

2 – James Earl Ray Was a Career Criminal on the Run

IF Ray was indeed a patsy, then the alleged conspirators chose well. When it emerged that James Earl Ray was King’s assassin, it made perfect sense. He was a white supremacist who had been in and out of prison his entire life. In fact, he was on the run after escaping from prison in 1967. Ray was born to an extremely poor family in Illinois in 1928. The family moved to Missouri in 1935 after Ray’s father passed a bad check. The move was deemed necessary to stay ahead of law enforcement, and this is how the younger Ray lived his life as an adult.

Ray joined the United States Army late in World War II as a teenager; he had dropped out of school aged 15. He saw some action in Germany, but overall, Ray was not cut out for life in the military. His first criminal conviction came in California in 1949 when he was arrested for burglary. Three years later, Ray was sentenced to two years in prison for the armed robbery of an Illinois, cab driver. Ray wasn’t out long when he was back in jail again, this time for mail fraud in the town of Hannibal, Missouri in 1955. He was sentenced to four years in the notorious Leavenworth prison.

Once again, he wasn’t a free man very long when he was caught stealing $120 during an armed robbery in St. Louis. Despite the paltry sum of money stolen, Ray’s record meant the authorities threw the book at him. He received a 20-year sentence which was to be served in Missouri State Penitentiary. Ray spent several years in prison before he hatched an escape plan. In 1967, he managed to flee from jail by hiding in a truck that transported bread from the facility’s bakery.

Ray was determined to stay out of prison this time and kept moving throughout North America. He spent a short time in Toronto and Montreal in Canada along with several American cities including Chicago, St. Louis, and Birmingham, Alabama. For a while, Ray lived in Mexico where he tried to forge a career as a pornographic movie director. As always, he was a failure and returned to the United States after being jilted by a prostitute he fell in love with. He arrived in Los Angeles in November 1967 and soon found himself attracted to the racist rhetoric of George Wallace who was in the midst of his presidential campaign. Ray even volunteered at the Wallace campaign HQ in Hollywood.

He planned to move to Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe), and in March 1968, he underwent a rhinoplasty. By now, he had planned to murder King, and he arrived in Atlanta on March 24. He circled King’s residence and church on a map, and after a brief stop in Birmingham, Ray was back in Atlanta by the end of March. He had purchased a rifle and ammunition while in Birmingham, and when he returned to the state of Georgia, he read that King was planning to travel to Memphis. On April 2, Ray packed his backs and set out to kill Martin Luther King Jr.

10 Facts and Theories that Will Make You Rethink the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
King Standing on the balcony – Portland Center Stage

3 – King Was an Easy Target

Unlike JFK, King was a relatively easy target for practically any half-decent shooter. On April 4, 1968, King was in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, a business owned by a man named Walter Bailey. It was the civil rights leader’s favorite room in Memphis, and he stayed in it so often with his friend, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, that the latter referred to it as the King-Abernathy Suite. King spoke to a musician named Ben Branch who was due to perform at a planned event that night.

Meanwhile, Ray was in a room in a booking house directly across from the Lorraine Motel. Ray clearly knew where King was staying and waited patiently for his prey to show. At approximately 6:01 pm that evening, he got his chance when King went out to the balcony. Ray was 200 feet away and used a Remington Model 760 rifle to kill his victim. All it took was a single shot to place a dagger in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. The bullet penetrated King’s right cheek and traveled down his spinal cord. The bullet severed King’s jugular vein and major arteries; he had no chance of survival.

The entire incident passed so quickly that it would have been easy to miss Ray fleeing his room. However, several witnesses saw him leaving the scene in a hurry. The police were pointed in the direction of Ray’s room and searched it thoroughly. They also found a rifle and binoculars close to the room and both had James Earl Ray’s fingerprints on them. The rifle had been purchased with an alias just six days beforehand. Confident that Ray was their man, the police initiated a global manhunt for the suspected assassin.

Although the bullet left King close to death, he was still alive when Abernathy found him bleeding on the balcony’s deck. The reverend was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital and doctors performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation to no avail. At 7:05 pm, just over an hour after he was shot, Martin Luther King Jr. was declared dead. Although he was just 39 years old, he had the heart of a 60-year old, mainly due to the stress he endured as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Millions of people had lost their hero and were in no mood to take it lying down.

10 Facts and Theories that Will Make You Rethink the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
Richard J. Daley – ABC7 Chicago

4 – The Death of King Led to Further Violence

The aftermath of King’s death led to the greatest level of civil disturbance since the Civil War. As King was also a major believer in non-violent protest, his murder led to serious anger and disillusionment. After all, if a proponent of peaceful protest, who always tried to do things the right way, was killed, what was the point of remaining passive? The riots began as hundreds of thousands of people across the United States began to believe that the only way to defeat white racism was through violence.

The riots took place all over the country, and the violence was worst in Washington D.C, Chicago, Baltimore, Kansas City, and Detroit. In all, there was civil unrest in over 100 cities. In Washington D.C, the riots began shortly after King’s death was confirmed. The city’s African-American community had prospered in the 1960s as the expanding federal government offered more job opportunities. Initially, a crowd of protestors, led by Stokely Carmichael and the SNCC, asked stores in the neighborhood to close out of respect.

The angry mob soon descended into violence however, and there was looting in the city before midnight on April 4. The city’s police force of around 3,000 officers was overwhelmed by a crowd of over 20,000 rioters. President Johnson had to send 13,600 federal troops to the city to calm thing down. The riots lasted in the city until April 8, and by that time, an estimated 1,200 buildings had been destroyed with property damage estimated at over $27 million.

It was a similar scene in Chicago as men and women broke store windows and helped themselves to clothes, food, TV sets, and liquor. Buildings were set on fire, and as was the case in Washington D.C, the president had to send federal troops into Chicago to assist the police. Later, Richard J. Daley, the mayor of Chicago, claimed that he ordered the police to shoot anyone who had a Molotov cocktail in their hand. At least nine people died in the Chicago riots, and over 350 people were arrested for looting.

Nationwide, the riots lasted until May, and when the dust had settled, at least 45 people lay dead, 2,500 were injured, and an estimated 15,000 were arrested. Property damage was in the hundreds of millions, and racial tensions were incredibly high. President Johnson reacted by urging the House of Representatives to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968, complete with the Fair Housing Act. The death of King radicalized thousands of people and helped the Black Power movement to grow. Meanwhile, James Earl Ray was still at large.

10 Facts and Theories that Will Make You Rethink the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
Ray being led to prison in Memphis after his earlier arrest in London – Rare Historical Photos

5 – Ray Wasn’t Caught for Two Months

Unlike other famous 1960s assassins such as Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan, James Earl Ray was not apprehended quickly. While he had plenty of experience evading the police, it seems remarkable that the most wanted man in America remained free for two months after committing his heinous crime. While Ray later claimed to be innocent, he fled Memphis as quickly as he could after the assassination and several witnesses claimed to have seen him run away from the scene.

After his capture, Ray claimed that he listened to the radio and heard that the police were seeking a man fitting his description driving a white Ford Mustang, the same car he was driving. His later story said that while he didn’t shoot King, he was scared and dumped his Mustang before traveling by train and bus across the border to Canada. He reached Canada by April 6 and acquired a Canadian citizen’s birth certificate. The name was Ramon Sneyd, and Ray used it to get a Canadian passport. However, a clerical error spelled his surname ‘Sneya,’ and this mistake proved costly.

Ray laid low in Canada for a month before boarding a flight in Toronto on May 7, destined for London. Once he landed in the UK, Ray flew to Lisbon in Portugal. Later, he said he made the journey in the hope of securing passage to Africa where it would be very difficult to find him. He planned to become a mercenary in a country that had no extradition treaty with the United States. While in Lisbon, he discovered the passport mistake and persuaded the Canadian embassy to give him a replacement passport to match the name ‘Sneyd’ on his birth certificate.

However, he was unable to get to Africa, so Ray returned to London on May 17. Ray desperately tried to find contacts to complete his Africa plan. He was running low on cash, so he robbed a small bank on June 4 but only stole £100; this happened a week after a failed raid on a store. The victims of his crimes identified him as James Earl Ray, and on June 8, he was arrested in Heathrow Airport as he tried to fly to Brussels. Now that King’s killer had been caught, it was time for justice to be served.

10 Facts and Theories that Will Make You Rethink the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. – Time Magazine

6 – Ray Withdrew His Confession and Claimed He Was Part of a Conspiracy

The evidence against Ray was damning. As well as the witnesses who saw him fleeing the boarding house, he left clues all over the place. This was hardly a surprise since he was far from being a criminal mastermind. Remember, he spent most of his adult life behind bars because he was unable to cover his tracks when committing his various crimes. Police found a receipt for the rifle used to kill King under the alias Harvey Lowmeyer. Ray used the name John Willard to rent the room, and the name Eric Galt while on the run. The police found his prints on the receipt, the gun, and his Mustang.

When Ray was extradited on July 18, 1968, to stand trial, it was a foregone conclusion. He confessed to the murder on March 10, 1969 and pled guilty to avoid the death penalty. If the case had gone to trial, Ray would have been found guilty in double quick time and faced execution. Instead, he received a 99-year prison sentence. It seemed as if Ray would rot in prison without drama but on March 13, he recanted his testimony and claimed he was part of a conspiracy.

Ray claimed that a man called Raoul was the guilty party, an issue I cover on the following page. Even today, when all the evidence points towards Ray as a lone gunman, conspiracy theories persist. According to Solomon Jones, a man who worked as King’s driver whenever he was in Memphis, he saw a man run from behind the brush across from the Lorraine Hotel after the shooting. However, no one else saw this mysterious man in the bushes. It is likely that while Jones wasn’t lying, he probably saw police officers running towards the scene.

Another conspiracy theory says that military intelligence agents had been on the roof of a fire station across from the Lorraine Hotel and they had taken photos of the killer. According to William Pepper, an attorney who was the last man to work for Ray before he died in prison, the agents who took the picture said Ray wasn’t the killer. While it’s true that agents from the 111th Military Intelligence Group were in Memphis the previous week, and one of its agents did go to the rooftop, he came down again after deciding it was too exposed. Also, the agent was on the roof two days before the shooting.

10 Facts and Theories that Will Make You Rethink the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
James Earl Ray – Vice

7 – Ray Said a Smuggler Called ‘Raoul’ Framed Him

After recanting his confession, Ray insisted that a mysterious man named ‘Raoul’ tricked him and ultimately framed him as King’s killer. The assassin said he met this individual in a Montreal bar in 1967 and that this man gave Ray the money to purchase the Mustang. It was Raoul who instructed Ray to rent the room in the boarding house and Raoul who told Ray to purchase the rifle. According to Ray, it must have been Raoul who was upstairs when the shot was fired at King.

The main issue facing Ray when trying to prove the existence of this man is a complete lack of evidence. During his time in prison, Ray identified at least 20 people as ‘Raoul,’ and every time it was proven that a named individual couldn’t have been this mystery man, his legal team concocted a new suspect. For one of the suspects, a woman named Glenda Grabow was the primary source of information. It turned out that she was talking nonsense as her story was full of holes. The fact that Grabow claimed Raoul also killed JFK speaks volumes.

One of the most amusing aspects of the Raoul story is that this mystery man has been a state trooper from Louisiana, an accountant, a cancer researcher, a hobo, and a Fortune 500 company employee. Ray’s team threw out new and improved suspects from all walks of life. Not one of these suspects had a standout characteristic, and Ray couldn’t even determine Raoul’s race or nationality as he has been Hispanic and Caucasian according to King’s killer.

Based on Grabow’s rambling story, the mystery man was called Dago. As an aside, she also claimed to have had sexual relations with Jack Ruby, the man who killed Oswald. She said that Dago was in Dallas at the time of JFK’s assassination and was probably the president’s killer. Grabow didn’t see Dago again until the 1970s when she met him in Houston. At a friend’s house, Dago stamped on a keychain Grabow was wearing which had a photo of King. He supposedly said, while referring to King: “I killed him once. Do I have to kill him again?” Then, Dago raped Grabow in the bedroom. Overall, the Raoul story is an interesting work of fiction, but nothing more.

10 Facts and Theories that Will Make You Rethink the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
Ray in 1977 (second left). Also pictured Gary Revel (far left), Jack Kershaw (second right) and Jerry, Ray’s brother (far right) – The New York Times

8 – Ray Briefly Escaped Prison in 1977

When it became clear that Ray’s bizarre Raoul story had been exposed for the crock of crap that it was, he became desperate. The chances of him getting a new trial were virtually nil, and he seemed destined to die in prison. Worse still, he was in the maximum security Brushy Mountain State prison. At that time, no one had ever launched a successful escape attempt from the jail. However, Ray had managed a daring prison escape once and was determined to do it again. On June 10, 1977, he saw his chance to make history as he, along with six fellow inmates, broke out of prison.

It was a detailed plot that had been some time in the making. The escape occurred when two prisoners staged a fight to distract the guards. Seven inmates scaled the prison’s 14-foot wall using a ladder made from plumbing materials. One of the escapees, David Powell, didn’t get the chance to taste liberty because he was shot by a guard after he had made it beyond the prison walls. Powell reportedly said: “Ray got away!” while he lay bleeding on the ground.

Although it was an embarrassing episode for the prison, the other six convicts didn’t stay at large for long. Officials in Tennessee began an all-out manhunt, and within minutes of their escape, the prisoners had hundreds of members of law enforcement chasing them. Ray was only free for 55 hours before the police found him in the nearby Cumberland Mountains. Two days later, every other escapee had been recaptured. It was the latest in a long line of escape attempts by Ray who seemingly enjoyed the challenge of trying to break out of jail.

In 1971, he tried to escape from Brushy Mountain by hacking through a bar, breaking fan blades and crawling into a ventilation tunnel. He left a dummy in his bed in an escape reminiscent of Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Ray crawled through the tunnel and made it as far as the prison yard underground. He took away a manhole cover from a steam tunnel and tried to get through. However, the 400-degree temperature in the room forced him to backtrack, and the guards caught him. Ray made another failed attempt in 1972.

10 Facts and Theories that Will Make You Rethink the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
Coretta Scott King with her husband – The Root

9 – King’s Family Supported Ray’s Calls for a New Trial

Despite the fact that every piece of evidence pointed towards Ray as the killer, King’s family still supported his plea for a new trial. What they expected to learn is unclear but shortly after Ray’s death in 1998, King’s widow, Coretta Scott, lamented the fact that America would never receive the benefit of a new trial for Ray which would have provided new revelations about the murder. Ray tried to get a new trial throughout his life, and in 1997, he met Dexter King, the son of the murdered reverend.

The King family has always maintained that the assassination was carried out by elements of the government. There had been doubts about the case against Ray from the beginning, and since he never had the opportunity to speak at a trial, the King family believed he could shed new light on the assassination if given a chance. The House Select Committee on Assassinations re-examined the case in 1976. The Committee was chaired by Louis Stokes, and in its final report, it suggested that Ray may not have been a lone gunman. However, the report also stated that there was no convincing evidence of government involvement in the death of King.

In 1993, William Pepper staged a mock trial on television which found Ray ‘not guilty.’ The aforementioned meeting between Dexter and Ray was televised, and King’s son was convinced that Ray was innocent. Despite the support of the King family, Ray was never given his day in court, and he died in prison on April 23, 1998. However, even his death didn’t close the lid on the case as another individual claimed involvement and was on the receiving end of a civil suit.

Given the evidence against Ray, it is puzzling that the King family believe he is innocent. We can understand if they think Ray had help when murdering their father but to suggest total innocence is a gigantic stretch. He was an avowed racist, and there is every chance that he found out about the $50,000 bounty on King’s head. It was offered by a segregationist lawyer named John Sutherland who lived in St. Louis. Ray could have learned about the bounty while in prison, either through the grave vine or from his brothers.

His brothers also said that Ray outlined his intention to kill King. Even though he was on the run after his escape from prison, he was obsessed with killing the reverend and probably started stalking him from March 17, 1968, onward. He definitely purchased the rifle and rented the room across from King. Perhaps he would have gotten away with it if he didn’t panic after seeing two police cars parked in the fire station close by. He threw away the evidence and fled the scene; the police used it to identify him. If Ray were part of a conspiracy fronted by professionals, he would never have survived 30 years in prison. They would have killed him to ensure he didn’t give the entire game away.

10 Facts and Theories that Will Make You Rethink the Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Lorraine Motel – YouTube

10 – The United States Government Was Found ‘Guilty’ of Conspiring to Kill King

In 1999, there were rumors that the United States Government had been found guilty of conspiring to murder King. The case cited as ‘evidence’ was the civil lawsuit filed by William Pepper on behalf of Dexter King, against a Memphis bar owner named Loyd Jowers. The case was also against unnamed co-conspirators and was named Coretta Scott King et al. vs. Loyd Jowers et al. The case was heard at Shelby County’s circuit court in Tennessee and lasted from November 15 to December 8.

The lawsuit was six years in the making, and its background began in December 1993. Jowers, the owner of Jim’s Grill, a bar located below the part of the rooming house where Ray stayed, decided that he wanted national attention, so he appeared on ABC’s Prime Time Live show. According to Jowers, he was part of a complex conspiracy to kill King which involved the Federal government and the Mafia. He also said Ray was a patsy. Jowers claimed that a man came in the back door of Jim’s Grill from the bushes outside, and asked Jowers to hide a rifle.

While it was an explosive story, to begin with, interest started to fade when it was confirmed that Jowers, was in fact, lying through his teeth. For one, why did he wait 25 years to tell his incredible tale? The biggest problem with Jowers’ story was the fact he changed the identity of this mystery man several times. First, the shooter was African-American, then he was Raoul. Jowers changed his mind again and said it was a white Lieutenant with the Memphis Police Department before finally deciding that he couldn’t recognize the individual after all. Had Jowers been given more of the spotlight, there’s a fair chance he would have incriminated the Tooth Fairy.

Before his appearance on TV, Jowers claimed that he was serving customers in the bar at the time of the shooting. Suddenly, the story changed, and the bar owner said he received $100,000 to find an assassin to kill King. Unsurprisingly, the United States Department of Justice dismissed Jowers’ claims. If he thought it was the end of the story, Jowers was in for the shock of his life when the King family filed a civil lawsuit. During the case, Pepper presented evidence from 70 witnesses and thousands of pages of transcripts. It is important to note that Jowers did not testify in the case and had never mentioned his allegations while under oath.

Incredibly, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff which was taken to mean that they believed Jowers had been involved in a complex conspiracy to kill King. Despite the bizarre outcome, it is important to remember that there was little at stake. Jowers was only being sued for $100 which meant that he didn’t need to defend himself vigorously and risk lying under oath. The King family was able to present its case unopposed, and the jury had no option but to find in favor of the plaintiff since an enormous amount of contradictory evidence was never presented. Ultimately, there is not, and never has been, any credible proof that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by anyone other than James Earl Ray, alone.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

“Izola Ware Curry, Who Stabbed King in 1958, Dies at 98.” Margalit Fox in The New York Times. March 2015.

“James Earl Ray.” Biography.com.

“This Day in History, April 4, 1968 – Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated.” History.com.

“Riots following the killing of Martin Luther King Jr.” James Coates in the Chicago Tribune.

“When Martin Luther King Jr’s Assassin fled to London.” Vincent Dowd in BBC News. June 2016.

“King conspiracy theories still thrive 40 years later.” James Polk in Black in America 2, CNN. December 2008.

“VI. Raoul and his alleged participation in the assassination.” The United States Department of Justice. August 2015.

“James Earl Ray flees a prison in Tennessee with 6 other convicts.” The Associated Press in the New York Times. June 1977.

“The Truth About Memphis.” Gerald Posner in the Washington Post. 1998.

“Martin Luther King Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle.” Kingcyclopedia.

“Was the U.S. Government Found Guilty of Assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr.?” Fact Checked by Kim LaCapria at Snopes.com. January 2015.