April 23, 1998
James Earl Ray, the man who admitted to killing Martin Luther King Jr. and then retracted his admission, died of kidney failure. Now the answer to whether he acted alone, was part of a conspiracy or an innocent bystander may die with him. Following a background report on Ray's life, three experts debate the controversy over who really killed the civil rights leader.
MARGARET WARNER: For some perspective on James Earl Ray we turn now to Gerald Posner, author of the recently published book "Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr;" the Reverend Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King, he later headed the organization until his retirement last January; and our NewsHour regular journalist and author Haynes Johnson.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
April 23, 1998
A background report on the James Earl Ray controversy.
March 2, 1998
Is America fragmenting into separate and unequal societies?
December 3, 1997
President Clinton holds a town hall meeting on race in America.
February 20, 1997
The family of Martin Luther King Jr. asks to reopen the investigation into his assassination.
January 15, 1997
A conversation with Rev. Bernice King, the daughter of the late civil rights leader.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of race relations.
The Martin Luther King Jr., Paper's Project at Stanford University.
Mr. Posner: "He was a clever convict."
Welcome, gentlemen. Mr. Posner, who was James Earl Ray? What kind of a man was he?
GERALD POSNER: He was a clever convict. He was somebody who knew how--he almost had a master's degree in criminality, although he was caught four times and served many years in jail, came from a very poor part of white America; he was, in fact, a racist, but he was somebody who was looking for a big score, a big payday, and he had boasted to some of his inmates, and even to his brothers, that he thought there was money to be made from killing black leaders like H. Rapp Brown, Stokeley Carmichael, and even King. That's what Martin Luther King presented him, was the chance to cash in, maybe up to $50,000 offered as a bounty out of St. Louis by some racists.
MARGARET WARNER: You said he was a racist. What is that based on? What's the evidence of that?
GERALD POSNER: It's based on literally several dozen statements from those who served with him in jail, who talked about the fact of what he used to say about blacks, and based upon the fact that he was offered a chance to transfer to an honor farm when he was in Pontiac Prison. He refused because it was integrated. He did not want to be there. It's based upon a fight that he got in with black sailors when he was in Mexico, on statements he made about blacks to a woman he was with in Canada. There's just cumulative evidence here. When I hear Dexter King say that he never heard any evidence that James Earl Ray was a racist, that's the one thing you can't say. I don't think he shot King because he was a racist, not in the sense that he was a white supremacist. But he was able to take an assignment to shoot King for money because in his view he was only killing a black man in the South.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Rev. Lowery, what's the picture you have of James Earl Ray, the man?
REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: A tragic figure in history. There's no record that I know about that James Earl Ray was efficient at anything. He committed petty crimes and he got caught. To think that he could plan, conspire, and execute the very complex process of assassinating Dr. King and then accessing the kind of technology that would give him credentials to fool the authorities with a new identity and a new name, it's incredible. I cannot believe how anybody--I can't understand how anybody could think that James Earl Ray could have done that dastardly deed all by himself. Now, I'm not prepared to exercise the moral authority and declare him innocent. But I hope I have the graciousness to forgive him. But I do believe he was involved.
The growth of conspiracy.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Posner, I'll get to you in a moment. Let me just get Haynes' view on this. What kind of a man was he?
HAYNES JOHNSON: My impression--I didn't study his life the way Mr. Posner did--I was there right that night after King was killed, covered King in the South, wrote about him, and all that, and I followed this case as we all have journalists over the years since. And he was a loser, one of history's losers, not a great figure, a footnote. But sometimes these people emerge, and they become the source for which history revolves. Out of this spins conspiracies. Was he a clever convict, as Mr. Posner says? Or was he so bungling that he couldn't have possibly gotten the weaponry, gotten the money, gotten the passports to go to Canada, to Portugal, to London, and back? Is that the kind of man he was? And out of that spins the conspiracy theories. But when you strike it right down, he was a loser, a small-time, maybe he acted like a convict, maybe he did it all alone. I don't know the answer to that. I defer to Mr. Posner's research on this sort of thing. But he was like Lee Harvey Oswald in a sense, a man who was lost in his time--in this case, race, white racism, the place from which he came, not that everybody is a racist in the South. That's not true. But he grew up in this way. A convict may be a good way to describe him.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Posner.
GERALD POSNER: I think, with all due respect to Rev. Lowery, and I respect his work a great deal, I don't think he's looked at the evidence in this book, and I might tell you that the common misperception of Ray--and I had it when I started this research four years ago--is that he's a bungling hillbilly, and, in fact, he turns out to be much cleverer than that. I must tell you that 10 years before he killed King, he was traveling to Canada and Mexico on false passports. He used over 20 different aliases. And I think what was just said a moment ago is key here. We can't quite believe as a society that the sociopathic losers in life--a four-time loser like James Earl Ray or a 24-year-old sociopath like Lee Harvey Oswald can bring down the charismatic great figures of our time like Dr. King or John F. Kennedy.
We almost want to put something heavier on the assassin side of the scale, and a conspiracy does that very nicely. We believe that these men were killed because for some reason they were threatening the very pillars of democracy and some dark, nefarious cabal in government had to get together to stop them in the middle of their careers. It almost gives a meaning to their death. But, in fact, if James Earl Ray carried off the assassination of Dr. King for a few dollars out of St. Louis or Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK because he wanted to put himself in the history books, it almost takes away the meanings of their death. And I think there's a natural tendency in this society to want to buy into the conspiracy theory even if the evidence is not there.
Rev. Lowery: "Let's pursue the truth because only the truth can set us free."
MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead, Rev. Lowery.
REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: I think there's also a natural tendency to want to oversimplify this to avoid facing the very ugly truth, and that is that people at very high places, including the government, were involved in this conspiracy. There's no way in the world that I can be convinced and people who've researched this from other perspectives as well, that we know the U.S. Army intelligence in Memphis at the time of his death, we know that J. Edgar Hoover despised with an obsession Dr. King. We know that letters were sent demanding that Dr. King commit suicide. We know that James Earl Ray did not have access to the technology that could forward him the credentials to do what he did after the act. I don't know that he did--you know--whether he pulled the trigger or not. That's relatively irrelevant.
I believe he was a tool in a larger toolbox, and it's easy for the country not to face the reality of the ugliness and the violence involved in racial hatred. And it's so simple to tuck it away, but we shall continue to pursue justice. The country doesn't want the truth. Memphis could right now grant immunity to some people who confessed upon a conspiracy. But they refuse to do it. They give immunity to drug dealers, but they won't give it to people who say we know there's a conspiracy. Let's hear what they have to say. Let's pursue the truth because only the truth can set us free.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Posner, earlier you made a comment about he might have taken money to do it. Is your--does your research show--do you believe that he acted totally alone, totally by himself, or that he was acting for someone else?
GERALD POSNER: I am no doubt 100 percent sure that he was the triggerman, but I also think it's likely that there is, in fact, a small conspiracy here, and that's why it was successful. I think that he could have had the help from his brothers, themselves hard core racists and ex-felons. It must be said that John and Jerry Ray adamantly deny any involvement, and they've never been charged. But I've set for the evidence about them in this book. And I do think that he was motivated by money, which was coming out of St. Louis. But for Rev. Lowery--what he just said a moment ago, I think what we need to acknowledge--that the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover had an obsessive war against Dr. King, no doubt about it. They broke the law, and there was army intelligence. As a matter of fact, in Memphis that day--I talk about it in my book--everybody had surveillance on Dr. King. But that government war against Dr. King took place on one hand, at the same time that James Earl Ray and a group of racists wanting to kill King for a few dollars proceeded on their own, toward that eventual assassination.
REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: But King was--
MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen, let me--
REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: --constantly under surveillance. How could they not know he was being stalked by James Earl Ray?
A skeptical public.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Haynes--let me get you back in this. CBS did a poll just last month showing 70 percent of Americans believe Ray did not act alone. Only 10 percent believe he's the lone assassin. How do you explain that?
HAYNES JOHNSON: For 30 years now since Martin Luther King was killed, 35 years since John F. Kennedy was killed, 30 years since Robert F. Kennedy was killed, we have had the prospect of assassination conspiracists; that something's wrong, that there has got to be more than just one person alone, or with a few people helping him out; there's got to be some vast ideological conspiracy. And, in fact, there are reasons to fuel those kinds of things. Rev. Lowery just talked about it. It is a fact that the FBI thought that King was immoral; that they were shadowing him; that they were tape recording him; they were trying to destroy him as a bad American, maybe a Communist. All those things are true. It is try that in the Kennedy case the CIA was troubled by the Bay of Pigs and my others. And you make all kinds of conspiracies; it doesn't prove anything. And it doesn't prove that one person didn't act with a few other people or alone, and--
MARGARET WARNER: What about the point Gerald Posner just made that we don't want to believe that it is one random act by some nut case?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I think that is so right. I mean, you can understand it in human terms. This is such a great signal event in our lives, the defining moment maybe in the 20th century was the death of this young, charismatic, eloquent person who talked about tolerance and non-violence, turning the other cheek at a time when we were riven with dissent, and he's taken away, therefore, you want to give meaning to the tragedy. You want to have it Shakespearian in the sense of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and all the conspirators, or John Wilkes Booth and all the Lincoln conspiracies. You want to have some vast sort of reason to believe in it. Often history says it may not be the case.
MARGARET WARNER: Rev. Lowery, this same poll showed that--I think it's like 94 percent of all African-Americans believe it was conspiracy, and they couldn't find one African-American that they interviewed who believed he acted alone. Why do you think it is that overwhelming?
REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: It just isn't credible. And let me tell you--to tolerate racism and racial hatred, to contribute in any way to a social environment that might make James Earl Ray or anybody else think it was an acceptable thing to kill a civil rights leader--we share in the conspiracy to that extent. But to believe that James Earl Ray, who never did anything right or efficiently, with the help of brothers who share that same legacy, that they could do that all by themselves, make it to Portugal, London, have passports, have the technology to get pictures of people whose name he could assume and whose identity was similar to his, that is absolutely incredible. There is no hunger in Memphis for the truth; there is no hunger in the nation for the truth; but we need to seek the truth because only the truth can heal and permit reconciliation, and set us free.
Questions that will never be answered?
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Posner, do you think this will ever be put to rest?
GERALD POSNER: No, I don't think. I would hope that people like Rev. Lowery and others who today so strongly believe that there was government involvement and that James Earl Ray was not clever enough to pull off this assassination will do things like investigating the case further, will read my book with an open mind, but still I must tell you that you are not going to settle this. If anything, the hard-core conspiracy buffs are now going to take Ray's death, and they're going to be able not to be fettered anymore by what he says; they're going to expand this very rapidly. You know, the King family has sold film rights to Oliver Stone. He's doing a film that's very similar to JFK on the last years of Martin Luther King's life and his assassination. So once the film is done, we'll be off and running. You won't recognize this case in 10 years. I think the speculation will continue to grow unfettered.
REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Well, let me--
MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry, gentlemen. I wish we could go on, but we can't. Thank you all three very much.
REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Thank you.
GERALD POSNER: Thank you.