Who Killed Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Ben Bowlin

A photograph of Dr. King from 1964, courtesy of the Nobel Foundation.

This week marks the 44th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. On April 4th, 1968, civil rights champion Dr. King was murdered by a single gunshot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The city plunged into a state of emergency, and while the nation mourned the loss of one of our greatest heroes, law enforcement searched for the killer. In June they caught up with a fellow named James Earl Ray. When he was apprehended in London (apparently on his way to Rhodesia), Ray initially confessed to the crime. Case closed, right?

Wrong. Ray renounced his confession. In his new story he claimed that a man known only as 'Raoul' gave him the gun. He also claimed there was a cover-up afoot, perhaps most famously in his book Who Killed Martin Luther King Jr.?: The True Story by the Alleged Assassin. This type of post-conviction reneging isn't anything new, but here's the thing: Some members of the King family believed Ray's story, and even joined him in calling for a new trial.

King's descendants aren't the only ones who suspect a conspiracy. It's been four decades since this tragic assassination, yet new conspiracy theories still crop up. This year the newest analysis comes from Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock. In their book The Awful Grace of God: Religious Terrorism, White Supremacy, and the Unsolved Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. the authors argue that James Earl Ray may have committed the murder for a bounty rather than an ideology. Wexler and Hancock don't believe that the government set up the assassination -- instead, they explore the possible involvement of religious terrorists and white supremacists from California, Mississippi and Alabama. This murky group of racists included organizations like the White Knights of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan, members of the Christian Identity church and the State's Rights Party.

What do you think? Was there a conspiracy to kill Dr. King, or were Ray's claims of conspiracy just a desperate tactic to escape prison (which he did, once)? In the meantime, here's our episode on the assassination.