By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
The most accepted and conventional version of the King assassination is that the night before the killing, James Ray—on the lam after having escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City in a giant bread box on April 23, 1967—rented a room in a Memphis flophouse across from the Lorraine Motel, where King was staying.
At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, a shot rang out from a Remington Gamemaster slide-action rifle with a telescopic scope that Ray had purchased six days earlier at Aeromarine Supply in Memphis. A single bullet struck King in the jaw and neck and he collapsed on the balcony. Witnesses reported seeing the 40-year-old Ray throwing down a bundle and fleeing the rooming house in a canary-yellow Ford Mustang. His fingerprints were found on a pair of binoculars and on the rifle.
The assassination sparked race riots in more than 100 cities. After a two-month manhunt, one of the largest in U.S. history, Ray was arrested at London's Heathrow Airport. On March 10, 1969, having been assured by his celebrated attorney Percy Foreman that he faced execution if convicted, Ray pled guilty. With the plea, a trial was waived and a 99-year sentence meted out by Judge Preston Battle.
Two days later, Ray fired Foreman, changed his plea to not guilty, and, over the next three decades, made seven unsuccessful requests for a trial. Until he died at the age of 70 from liver failure in a prison hospital near Memphis on April 23, 1998, Ray maintained that he was the fall guy, an unwitting tool caught up in a wide-ranging conspiracy. It was the government and the Mob, Ray said, that conspired to kill King. The gunman, he alleged, was a shadowy government agent named "Raul," or "Raoul," as Ray spelled it.
In the foreword to Ray's 1992 memoir, Who Killed Martin Luther King Jr.?, the Reverend Jesse Jackson wrote, "I have always believed that the government was part of a conspiracy, either directly or indirectly, to assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
Or as Ray's father, George Ellis Ray, once put it: "He couldn't have planned it alone. He wasn't smart enough."
Whatever the case, to John Ray, even all these years later, warm memories still surface when thoughts turn to growing up with James on the 56-acre family farm in Ewing, Missouri, 20 miles west of Quincy. "We played tag and swam in the Fabius River," says Ray, struggling to make the words cooperate. "We were kids then. We talked baseball all the time. Most things seemed pretty normal. James told me he wanted to take a bartending course someday and go to Ireland and open up his own bar."
Ray says his infamous brother was no racist, debunking a key motive many assigned to James after his capture, perhaps because he once inquired about immigrating to then white-run Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), or because he purportedly got into a heated argument with a Los Angeles bar girl who'd said something supportive about civil rights for African Americans.
Counters Ray: "I never heard him say anything anti-Semitic or anti-black. He had a black girlfriend for a while in L.A. Usually racists don't have black girlfriends. And I remember him rooting for [Willie] Mays to win the Triple Crown one year. And did you know that his favorite ballplayers were Jewish?"
Fiddling with some wisps of white hair that spray out from under his black baseball cap, Ray confides, "My brother was never the same after he got back from the army in 1948. The army changed him forever. He shot and wounded a black soldier there named Washington, and after that the government started to control his mind. James didn't kill King. He wasn't the shooter."
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LYNDON BARSTEN SAYS he grew so obsessed with the King assassination that he looked into donating a part of his own liver to prolong James Earl Ray's life. "I wanted him to live in order to have had a real trial," says Barsten, one of the nation's leading conspiracy theorists on the Memphis murder 40 years ago.
"I always took at face value that James shot and killed him," Barsten adds.
That all changed during a vacation he took in Atlanta in 1993. There Barsten, now 51, had a chance encounter with the Reverend Hosea Williams, which he says altered his life forever. Williams, who died in 2000, was at King's side on the Lorraine Motel balcony when the civil-rights leader was gunned down.
"Reverend Williams, I remember, called James Earl 'Jimmy,' like they were good friends. He said to me it was a government plot to kill King because Dr. King had become a huge threat, a danger to the government because of his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War," recalls Barsten. "I was shocked, horrified. Even though I was only 11 when he was killed, I was fascinated with Martin Luther King. I thought of him as the perfect man."
In 1995 Barsten began writing letters to Ray. "He would write back and tell me he had no time to answer my questions," Barsten says. "But I kept writing. In one letter I asked him if he wanted some music—that maybe I could send him a boom box. He wrote back saying he was dealing with legal matters and, besides, wasn't very much interested in music anymore."