On April 4, 1968, escaped convict James Earl Ray shot and killed Dr. Martin Luther King while he lingered on a motel balcony. Roads to Memphis is the fateful narrative of this killer and his prey, set against the seething, turbulent forces in American society at that time.
James Earl Ray, a career criminal with a history of small-scale robberies and scattered stints in jail, grew up in a poor section of Illinois. Ray dropped out of school at the age of 15 and served only two years in the army before he was dismissed for "ineptness and lack of adaptability". While in the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1966, Ray followed Martin Luther King's growing popularity and power, nursing his own hatred of the civil rights leader and his gnawing desire to escape from prison. In April 1967 Ray smuggled himself out of the penitentiary by hiding in a bakery cart. Hoping his escape would inspire a widely publicized manhunt, Ray was disappointed in the police's lackluster response, and he began searching even more desperately for something to make him infamous.
Ray's pursuit of notoriety took him all over the United States, Canada, and Mexico on various robberies, smugglings and scams. Ray prepared himself for the grander scale of criminality by using various aliases and undergoing plastic surgery to alter the shape of his nose. By the time he volunteered for George Wallace's presidential campaign under the name of Eric S. Galt, Ray had zeroed in on his ultimate target, Dr. Martin Luther King.
Traveling to Birmingham, Alabama to stalk King, Ray bought a Remington rifle under the name Harvey Lowmeyer. On April 3rd, King spoke to the crowd at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, giving one of the most powerful and memorable speeches of his life. In it, he addressed the growing threats against his life, proclaiming "It doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind."
The following, April 4th, as King and his aides prepared to go to dinner, Ray shot and killed the civil rights leader from a boarding house adjacent to King's motel. The assassination shocked the country, setting off deadly riots from coast to coast and triggering the largest, costliest and most ambitious manhunt thus far in American history. Despite leaving a large bundle of belongings outside of the rooming house where he fired the deadly shot, Ray's identity remained elusive to investigators due to his extensive use of aliases while on the lam. It was not until two weeks later, when detectives linked the prints on the rifle to James Earl Ray, that they knew whom to look for.
Meanwhile, Ray had abandoned his white Mustang in Atlanta where he boarded a bus to Detroit. From there, Ray entered Canada in a taxi where he was able to secure a passport under the name of George Sneyd. By now, with his picture being internationally circulated, Ray began to feel the pressure from the FBI. He traveled from Toronto to London with the intention of escaping into obscurity in Rhodesia, where he believed he would be celebrated for his actions. James Earl Ray was finally arrested and taken into custody on June 8 at the Heathrow Airport in London.
Ray pled guilty to killing King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Three days later, he recanted his plea, and he spent the rest of his life declaring his innocence. He died behind bars in April 1998, nearly 30 years to the day after the murder.
Roads to Memphis is told through eyewitness testimony from King's inner circle and the officials involved in Ray’s capture and prosecution following an intense two-month international manhunt. The first film to explore the mind of King's elusive assassin Roads to Memphis is both an incisive portrait of an America on edge in that crisis-laden year and a cautionary tale of how the course of history can be forever altered by the actions of one individual. Roads to Memphis is produced and directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Ives (Seabiscuit, Kit Carson, Las Vegas).