As Americans pause to commemorate what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 89th birthday, a new book chronicles the civil rights leader’s horrific assassination 50 years ago, the harrowing pursuit of his killer and the legacy he leaves with us today.
James L. Swanson is the author of “Chasing King’s Killer: The Hunt for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassin.” Swanson, who writes of these searing moments in history in the style of a novel, has also written on the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy and the pursuit of their assassins.
When it comes to King, Swanson told WND and Radio America one quality stands out strongest.
“I think Martin Luther King is one of the bravest men in American history, in a way more so than Abraham Lincoln or John Kennedy. Unlike them, Dr. King was under constant threat of death and harassment for over 10 years,” Swanson explained.
Swanson begins the book by recounting the 1958 attack on King’s life, when a deranged black woman named Izola Ware Curry stabbed King in the heart at a book signing event in Harlem. Later, the FBI kept very close tabs on King, and one official even sent a letter urging King to take his own life before receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
The threats didn’t stop there.
“He was threatened countless times with death. His home was bombed. A gun was shot at his house. He was hit with bottles and rocks and stones,” Swanson said. “He was arrested over 30 times by white sheriffs and policemen.”
Yet, King endured the threats of violence to pursue his dream of Americans being judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
“He could have gone back to private life and lived quietly as a husband, father and minister at his local church,” Swanson said. “But he said for this great cause, we must all be prepared to die. In fact, when John Kennedy was assassinated, Martin Luther King turned to his wife and said, ‘Well, you know that’s what’s going to happen to me.'”
Listen to the WND/Radio America interview with author James L. Swanson:
In 1967, just as King was straining relations with President Johnson over the Vietnam War, a lifelong criminal named James Earl Ray escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in the back of a bread truck.
He seemed like the last person to have his name etched permanently in history.
“Ray was a longtime, lifelong loser,” Swanson said. “He grew up poor in Missouri, almost Civil War-type poverty, didn’t even have shoes at school, dropped out of school. He was a lifelong petty criminal who came from a generation and forebears of criminals and grifters and chiselers.”
After escaping, Ray went out to California and successfully went unnoticed. He spent the next several months on mundane pursuits such as ballroom dance classes, bartending school.
“He went to find a new life in California like so many lost people in the 1960s did,” Swanson said. “He went to see gurus and psychologists who would teach him self-awareness and self-improvement. It was an odd life.”
Then, suddenly, after King visited Los Angeles in March 1968, Ray left Los Angeles and headed to the Deep South, apparently determined to kill Dr. King. So what changed?
“Ray was certainly a racist, but he wasn’t in the Klan. He had never participated in racial violence. This hidden alarm clock, this hidden signal went off in Ray, almost like he was a hibernating animal. Something triggered him, and he decided to hunt down Martin Luther King,” Swanson said.
“I think he did it to achieve significance. Certainly, he wanted to send the civil rights movement into disarray. But I think his innermost motive was to be somebody, because he had been nobody all of his life.”
Around that time, King was spending a lot of time in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of the city’s striking sanitation workers. Newspaper accounts included a picture of King outside the Lorraine Motel, with his room number – 306 – clearly visible in the picture.
According to the evidence, Ray then rented a room at a boarding house near the Lorraine Motel. From his room, Ray could see King’s room and the balcony outside of it. But he did not have a clear shot from there. He soon discovered that the community bathroom in the boarding house offered the angle he was looking for.
Around 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968, Ray noticed that King was standing alone on the balcony, speaking to associates in the parking lot below. Ray quickly made his way to the bathroom, locked the door and fired one shot that fatally struck King in the cheek.
A couple of police officers had been quietly observing King, trying to assure his visit to Memphis proceeded smoothly.
“Two of them were in the (nearby) fire station, observing Dr. King from a distance at the Lorraine Motel. They saw him shot. They yelled to each other, ‘Dr. King has just been shot.’ So they ran out of the fire station and ran to the Lorraine Motel to see what was going on,” Swanson said.
While the police rushed to the motel, Ray was making his getaway. But as he approached his car, Ray noticed the patrol cars parked at the fire station. Fearing an officer would see him, Ray quickly ditched his rifle and a suitcase, a decision that eventually provided critical evidence in his capture.
Swanson said Ray may have been captured within minutes if Memphis police had set up roadblocks more swiftly, but a prank call at the worst time delayed those efforts.
“The Memphis police were distracted because a teenager got on a ham radio and pretended to be someone pursuing James Earl Ray in his Mustang,” Swanson explained. “It was all a crank call, and it sent police on a wild goose chase for almost an hour.”
Ray slipped out of Tennessee via back roads and eventually wound up in King’s hometown of Atlanta. From there, he abandoned his car and caught a bus, first to Chicago and then to Detroit, where he then slipped in to Canada.
From there, Ray forged a passport and flew to England with hopes of eventually disappearing in Africa. However, the fingerprints from the boarding house and his rifle, along with other evidence, allowed the FBI to track down Ray, with the help of Scotland Yard, just as he was preparing to board a flight.
After initially pleading his innocence, Ray agreed to plead guilty, a move that launched a number of conspiracy theories. Ray alleged that he was doing the bidding of a figure known only as Raoul. Others thought there may have been a government conspiracy or that Ray was targeting King on behalf of white supremacists.
“There were rumors at the time that a rich, racist white man had offered a $50,000 or even a $100,000 reward for the man who killed Martin Luther King,” Swanson said. “But how could Ray have found out who that man was? How could he have collected the reward?”
He said the facts of the case lead to an obvious conclusion.
“There is overwhelming evidence that it was certainly James Earl Ray in the window of the boarding house from which the shot was fired. There’s so much evidence that it was certainly James Earl Ray, and James Earl Ray did it alone,” Swanson said.
“I do believe there’s some evidence that one or two of his brothers might have helped him plot it or, more likely, helped him during the initial phases of his escape.”
However, in the 1990s, Ray successfully convinced one group of his innocence.
“One of King’s sons (Dexter) went to visit James Earl Ray in prison and said, ‘I believe you. My family believes you. You didn’t kill my father.’ It was one of the greatest con jobs by a lifelong con man,” Swanson said.
“There’s a very disturbing photo of King’s son extending his hand to shake the hand of James Earl Ray. Ray keeps his hands in his pockets and stares at the son. The look on Ray’s face is, ‘Oh, you expect me to shake that black man’s hand?’ You can read it on his face,” Swanson said.
In a speech the night before his assassination in 1968, King told his followers that the movement would reach the “promised land” but admitted he might not be alive to see it.
“He said, ‘I would like a long life but tonight I’m not fearing any man.’ He didn’t know that just a couple of miles away on that stormy night that a man with a rifle was lying in wait in a hotel room and was going to come out the next day and hunt him down and kill him,” Swanson said.
In his voluminous research for the book, Swanson said he came to admire King all the more for his courage and commitment to the cause of equality and justice. He believes that it what Americans should consider on this day.
“He loved America. He didn’t hate America,” Swanson said. “He thought America had failed to live up to the promise in the Declaration of Independence. He wanted to carry on Abraham Lincoln’s unfinished work and make America a better place.”