The Question That Won't Go Away: Who Killed King? Martin Luther King Jr.'s Family and Experts Raise New Questions about 1968 Assassination

By Chappell, Kevin | Ebony, May 1997 | Go to article overview

The Question That Won't Go Away: Who Killed King? Martin Luther King Jr.'s Family and Experts Raise New Questions about 1968 Assassination


Chappell, Kevin, Ebony


Martin Luther King Jr.'s family and experts raise new questions about 1968 assassination

Who killed Martin Luther King Jr.? A Tennessee court thought it had answered that question when, without a fullcourt hearing, it sentenced James Earl Ray to 99 years in prison.

But if this case was as open and shut as it seemed in 1969, why--28 years later--is the verdict coming apart? Why do so many people, including the King family, doubt that Ray fired the fatal shot that killed Dr. King as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968?

Is it possible that we've been hoodwinked and James Earl Ray didn't kill King?

If Ray didn't do it, then who did?

Was it a clandestine group within the government as Dexter King and Andrew Young have suggested?

Was it a professional hit man?

How about organized crime?

Or could Ray have been telling the truth when he pointed the finger at the elusive man known only as `Raoul'?

For the first fume, the King family, led by widow Coretta Scott King and son Dexter, has come forth to publicly discuss the case and to suggest that the only way to answer these questions is by granting a trial to Ray, who is near death, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver in a Tennessee prison hospital. But whether or not a judge decides to grant Ray a new trial, there will undoubtedly be many questions that will never be answered. "Now is our best time to get at the truth," says Dexter King, president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, "It's pretty much now or never."

What little is known about the events that transpired at the Lorraine Motel on that breezy April evening has been gathered from police reports, government investigations and eyewitness accounts.

The case Shelby County prosecutors pieced together against Ray weaved a plot of deception and determination by a career criminal on the run, willing to do whatever it took--rob banks, even kill--to get the money he needed to flee the country. While the government's plot was the stuff of a best-selling murder mystery, the case ran into character development problems that forced the public to believe it was possible for Ray to be a calculating professional crook and cold-blooded killer one minute and a bungling nincompoop the next. Even so, history books and historians have generally told the traditional story, the one in which Ray, a petty burglar, robber and, at the time, an escaped prisoner from Missouri--using a different name--checks into the dilapidated Bessie Brewer rooming house just west of the 32-room, L-shaped Lorraine Motel. He camps out in a bathroom, peering out of the window. It is shortly before 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 4--at the beginning of the Holy Week. For the last two weeks, Ray has stalked King from Selma to Atlanta to Memphis, waiting for the right moment. With his finger on the trigger, he now waits patiently for King to come into sight.

Across the street at the Lorraine, the scene is much different. People are in a jubilant mood as they begin to gather in the parking lot of the motel, where King is staying while in town leading a Black sanitation workers' stake.

He is sharing a room with his confidant, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The entire town knows what room they are in. Strangely, the local TV news reported the night before that King was at the Lorraine Motel in Room 306.

He and his aides are preparing to go to the Rev. Billy Kyles' house for a soul-food dinner, Kyles' way of thanking them for helping the city's garbage men in their fight to get better pay and working conditions. Kyle has a limousine waiting to transport everyone to his house. He is waiting on the steps.

In the parking lot, 160-pound Andrew Young shadowboxes with James Orange, who weighs in at 260 pounds. About an hour earlier, Young was in a fairer battle. In his hotel room, Young was engaged in an intense pillow fight with King and Abernathy. …

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