Legendary civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., until he was fatally shot on this day in 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, was a preacher who used the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience to fight for equality and justice.
At 6:05 P.M. on Thursday, April 4, 1968, King was shot dead while standing on a balcony outside his second-ﬂoor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had come to lead a peaceful march in support of striking sanitation workers. News of King’s death sparked racial violence, leading to the death of more than 40 people nationwide.
King had, in the year in which he died, expressed worry over the slow pace of civil rights in America and the rise in criticism from other African-American leaders. He had embarked on a series of demonstrations and gone through jail, apart from being threatened with death. He had made plans for another march on Washington to revive his movement and bring attention to scores of issues before he was murdered.
Authorities found the name Harvey Lowmeyer on the sales receipt for a rifle left at the murder scene. John Willard rented the room across the street from King’s motel and Eric Galt drove the white Mustang out of Memphis that night. Fingerprints showed all the three names were aliases for the same man — James Earl Ray, a criminal and prison escapee.
He pleaded guilty to King’s murder in 1969 but recanted days later, raising doubts that he was the gunman. Many including King’s children said they doubt a lone gunman killed King, considering how the civil rights icon was hounded by the FBI for years before he was killed. Authorities investigated the death of King several times, concluding that Ray shot the civil rights leader but that didn’t stop the following conspiracy theories about King’s assassination.
The second gun
Around 1993, Loyd Jowers, who owned a bar and grill near the motel in Memphis where King was killed, told authorities that a man came in the back door of his bar and gave him a rifle to hide. Jowers claimed that Ray did not kill King and that he knew who was paid to do it. But he changed his story about twice as to who the person was.
Ray’s lawyer, William Pepper, later filed a civil lawsuit against Jowers on behalf of Dexter King, the son of King. The suit accused Jowers and the U.S. government of being involved in King’s assassination. In 1998, Pepper won a jury’s verdict that there was indeed a conspiracy involving Jowers, but not Ray, according to CNN.
That trial was described as a sham by The New York Times. The fact is, investigators spoke with people who were at Jowers’ bar and grill in 1968. None of them said they saw anything weird. During the 1998 civil trial, none of the prosecution’s evidence was presented. Jowers also did not take the stand.
“The only time he testified under oath, in an earlier case, he denied the story about a second gunman with a second rifle,” CNN wrote. Jowers was also tape-recorded saying, “There was no second rifle”, in a phone call to investigators. Local prosecutors in Memphis, including John Campbell, who was asked to look at claims by Jowers, told NPR that “within a couple of weeks, we figured out this first story wasn’t going to go anywhere, it wasn’t true.”
The CIA connection
One of many conspiracy theories was around the man kneeling over King’s body on the motel balcony right after he was shot. Unbeknown to King and his team, that man kneeling was an undercover cop, assigned to infiltrate a Black power youth group, CNN reported. When King’s murder investigation began, the FBI initially didn’t disclose to anyone that the man was an undercover cop. The man would later leave the Memphis police force and start work with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Now, this is what officials said. His name was Marrell McCollough, and according to the CIA, he did not join the agency until 1974, six years after King’s murder. In the House Assassinations Committee hearings in 1978, McCollough testified openly that he went to the balcony after the shooting to try and give first aid. McCollough also passed a lie detector test clearing him of involvement in King’s death, per a Justice Department report in 2000.
The mystery man
Ray claimed from the time he was caught that a man named “Raoul” framed him. He said he met Raoul in a Montreal bar in the summer of 1967, adding that it was Raoul who told him to buy the rifle and rent a room in the boarding house. Ray also claimed that it was Raoul who was upstairs when the shot was fired. Ray’s lawyer Pepper later said he had located the man known as “Raoul”. He was a retired autoworker in New York.
But the autoworker was later cleared by the Justice Department which said that the man’s records showed that he could not have been with Ray in Memphis, Birmingham or other key places Ray traveled to ahead of the murder. Pepper even told CNN, “We never found anybody who placed James in Raoul’s presence or Raoul in James’ presence. We were never able to do that.”
Military intelligence agents
Ray’s lawyer Pepper claimed that military intelligence agents went onto the roof of the fire station opposite the motel with cameras to spy on King. While doing so, they took a photo of the real killer following the shooting, he claimed.
“One of the guys, when the shot took place, took his camera and spanned it all the way around to the left, into the bushes, and he caught the shooter lowering the rifle. And he said it was not James Earl Ray.”
Curiously, Pepper never came across such a photo. He said someone told him about it and attempts to get it failed. Now here are the facts as presented by authorities: Agents from the 111th Military Intelligence Group were in Memphis following a violent protest march days before the shooting. Two of the agents did go onto the firehouse roof but the roof was too exposed so they walked around just a minute and came back down, according to Fire Capt. Carthel Weeden to CNN.
Weeden said those agents went on the roof two days before King’s murder. They were not there when King was shot and so that photo described by Pepper was never taken.