WASHINGTON -- In the minutes after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a dark suspicion crossed the mind of one of King's closest aides. Somehow, Andrew Young believed, the federal government had been behind the shooting.
After kneeling over his dying friend's body in Memphis, Tenn., that night, Young couldn't help thinking that "people in the federal government somewhere [had] made a decision that Martin had to be stopped."
No credible evidence of a government plot has been found, but suspicions remain. Indeed, while King's historical reputation seems secure, doubts surrounding his murder burn as fiercely as ever.
Today, 29 years after he was slain by a single rifle shot, his assassination is once again a hot topic. Speculation about who really killed King has become grist for newspapers, TV talk shows, prime-time news magazines and nightly newscasts.
The renewed attention is being fed by those close to King, including his family, who have never accepted the official version of events. Last week, in a made-for-TV encounter, King's youngest son, Dexter, told James Earl Ray, serving a 99-year prison sentence for the murder, that he believed Ray was innocent and had had nothing to do with the shooting.
Historians oppose reopening
Historians and others have deplored Ray's efforts, endorsed by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and his four children, to reopen the case. They depict the King family, variously, as unwitting dupes of a conspiracy theoretician and as promoters of their own pending movie deal with Oliver Stone, maker of the film "JFK."
"Many of the people around King have always wanted to believe there was something much bigger," says David J. Garrow, King's biographer.
Garrow calls it "very sad" that King's own family is "so uninformed" about the facts surrounding his murder. In his view, the evidence is "overwhelming" that Ray was the killer.
Taylor Branch, another historian of the civil rights movement, expresses concerns that Ray could, incorrectly, come to be viewed by the public as an innocent victim in the case. Branch explains the willingness to believe there was a grand conspiracy to kill King by recalling what the Rev. James Bevel, a King aide, once told him: "No one 10-cent white boy can murder a million-dollar black man."
Similarly, according to Branch, the Rev. James Lawson, who coordinated the Memphis garbage workers strike, which King was supporting when he was killed, found it hard to accept that nonviolence had broken down in Memphis. There was "a deep need on Lawson's part to believe that he was up against forces he could not control," Branch says.
Both Bevel and Lawson, who officiated at Ray's prison wedding in 1978, have long felt that Ray "could only be a pawn at best and, because he was a pawn, was essentially innocent," Branch adds.
In 1969, Ray, a small-time criminal with white racist connections, pleaded guilty to King's murder in exchange for assurances that he would not receive the death penalty. He recanted three days later. Since then, his attempts to get a full-scale trial have been rejected by state and federal courts.
Ray, now 69 and terminally ill with liver disease, has repeatedly changed his story over the years. Even if a new trial is granted, he may not live long enough to testify.
"We are racing against the clock," Dexter King has said, describing the effort as a final chance to bring "closure" to his family's tragedy.
In 1979, after a two-year investigation, the House Select Committee on Assassinations reaffirmed that Ray killed King. But a majority of the committee also found "substantial evidence" -- though no hard proof -- of a conspiracy linking Ray to white racist businessmen in the St. Louis area.
Ray's attorney, William F. Pepper, contends that a much broader conspiracy -- involving the corporate elite, the government and the mass media -- was at work. Pepper, who was briefly associated with King in the final year of his life, laid out his theory in a 1995 book, "Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King."
The book, which Dexter King called "very compelling," actually offers several competing explanations. One is that a team of Army sharpshooters was sent to Memphis to assassinate King. Another points at organized crime. A third backs Ray's longtime assertion that a mystery man known only as Raul was responsible.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, like Andrew Young and others in Memphis that night, continues to have doubts about what really was behind the shooting. Jackson is convinced Ray pulled the trigger. But he criticizes the FBI, which oversaw the investigation, for failing to identify others who may have been involved.
"We know that during that time there were powerful right-wing forces putting up money to kill [King], and so there's a lot of reasons to suggest James Earl Ray is in the center of this," Jackson says. Ray "is a pawn in a much bigger world, and the impression is that the [investigation] was cut short real quick to cover some people."
Rep. Louis Stokes, the chairman of the House Assassinations Committee, which questioned Ray for three days during nationally televised hearings in 1978, has stuck to the view that Ray was the killer. Stokes, an Ohio Democrat, joins those who criticize the FBI's failure to look for a conspiracy. But he notes that the committee's investigation cleared the FBI, which had conducted a smear campaign against King, of any involvement in the killing.
"We were never able to prove precisely who the co-conspirators were," says Stokes.
But the panel, created in an effort to resolve doubts about the shootings of King and President John F. Kennedy, found additional evidence tying Ray to the murder.
Born in Alton, Ill., just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Ray has spent most of his adult life behind bars. While serving a sentence for robbing a grocery store, he escaped from a Missouri prison in April 1967, and less than a year later began stalking King.
In the weeks before the assassination, he followed King from Los Angeles to Atlanta, then to Selma, Ala., and back to Atlanta. A map found with Ray's belongings contained markings that showed the location of King's Atlanta house, office and church.
On March 30, 1968, using an alias, Ray bought a .30-06 Remington Gamemaster rifle in Birmingham, Ala. The weapon was found less than a week later near the scene of the shooting.
Ray had trailed King to Memphis and checked into a rundown rooming house overlooking the Lorraine Motel, where King was staying. The window of Ray's room had a view of the balcony outside King's room.
Minutes after King was shot, on April 4, 1968, police discovered a bundle containing Ray's rifle, the radio he used in prison and a copy of that morning's newspaper, which reported that King was staying at the Lorraine. The bundle had been dropped two doors from the rooming house by a white man who was seen running from the scene. Ray's fingerprints were found on the rifle, the paper and other belongings.
A spent cartridge in the rifle matched the slug that struck King in the jaw, broke his spine and came to rest under his left shoulder blade. But the slug -- a soft-point hunting bullet designed to fragment -- was too badly damaged by the impact, authorities said, to positively identify it as having come from Ray's rifle.
After the shooting, Ray drove his white Ford Mustang back to Atlanta, caught a bus for Canada and, eventually, fled to England. His destination: the African nation of Rhodesia, then ruled by white supremacists. He was apprehended June 8, 1968, when, armed with a loaded pistol, he tried to board a plane in London.
A Scotland Yard detective assigned to guard Ray after his arrest told Congress that while Ray never actually told him he pulled the trigger, there was little doubt "that he was admitting to me that he had done the murder."
Less than a year after the shooting, Ray entered a plea of guilty. His attorney, Percy Foreman, had recommended that Ray accept a life sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.
"In my opinion, there is a little more than a 99 percent chance of your receiving a death penalty verdict if your case goes to trial," Foreman advised him. Foreman, who like many key figures in the case is now dead, told Congress that Ray admitted to him that he fabricated the story of Raul's involvement in the crime.
During a March 10, 1969, session in open court, Ray admitted that he had killed King and that his guilty plea was voluntary.
Three days later, Ray asked to withdraw his plea, claiming it had been coerced. The courts refused to let him change his plea.
In its 6,000-page report in 1979, the House committee concluded that Ray had been motivated to kill King by a $50,000 bounty on the civil rights leader's head. The source was said to be John Sutherland, a St. Louis attorney and segregationist. Sutherland, by then deceased, was a member of the White Citizens Council and a supporter of George Wallace's American Independent Party, which operated an office across from a bar owned by Ray's brother, John.
John Ray, who was also backing Wallace's party, was aware of the $50,000 offer, according to testimony before Congress, though there is no evidence that any money changed hands after the killing. John Ray denied the accusation and instead says that the FBI was behind the assassination.
Little new evidence in the case has surfaced since the 1970s, though there have been several new claims of involvement in the shooting. None has been verified.
In 1993, a Memphis man named Loyd Jowers, who owned the tavern beneath the rooming house where Ray stayed the night of the shooting, said he hired someone other than Ray to kill King. His story ties a deceased Memphis grocer with alleged mob connections to the case.
Dexter King, in a news conference after his meeting with Ray last week, says he does not know who killed his father. "That's why a trial, I think, is so necessary," he said. "There are forces out there that don't want what has been in darkness to come to light."
Others question his thinking.
It is "a big leap to go from saying, 'I have misgivings about the Ray case' to 'I think James Earl Ray is innocent and deserves a new trial,' " says Branch.
By reopening the James Earl Ray case, says Branch, "we are almost certain to lose what little closure we have now. No good can come out of it, and a lot of bad can come out of it."
Pub Date: 4/04/97