Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. After an international search, James Earl Ray was captured and confessed to killing the civil rights leader. Because Ray entered a guilty plea, a full trial was never held. Twenty-nine years into his 99-year sentence, Ray’s case should be long closed, but lingering doubts remain. Ray recanted his admission of guilt days after his conviction and has requested a trial eight times. With his health now rapidly deteriorating, the case has taken on a new urgency. Last Thursday, a judge suggested that a new ballistics test might provide new evidence, but rejected the latest request for a trial.
The courts may not see enough new evidence to retry the case, and indeed, Ray’s claims may be totally groundless, but the broader social implications of this case should be taken into account. If Ray isn’t allowed a trial before his death, he should at least be permitted to go on the public record and give full sworn testimony about his knowledge concerning the assassination of Dr. King. The assassinations of the 1960s inflicted lasting wounds on our society. Current failure to deal openly with them allows paranoia to fester and is a disservice to history.
In the years following King’s death, the FBI’s extensive investigation of King was revealed. Former director J. Edgar Hoover saw King’s work as radical and dangerous. The FBI trailed King for years looking for signs that he was more interested in subversive action or communism than demanding equal rights. This type of government action makes the subject of King’s death a ripe breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 is often portrayed as a moment when America lost its idealism. Kennedy’s death continues to be the subject of national fascination, in part, because too many unanswered questions surround the case. Closed files and dead witnesses have led to speculation about potential conspirators, including the mob and the CIA. King’s death was a similar trauma in the nation’s recent past. Refusing to acknowledge Ray’s request for a trial, or disregarding his statements concerning the case, only invites the same type of distrust and divisiveness that surrounds the JFK assassination.
A trial for Ray, if adequately warranted, would be an opportunity for closure: The nation could be assured that King’s death was caused solely by Ray and conspiracy theories would be put to rest. If Ray’s charges about the involvement of other shadowy players are an obvious fabrication, then Ray’s role as the racist loner who killed King is re-affirmed. Of course, there is also the possibility that Ray’s testimony might reopen old wounds and force a difficult reinterpretation. If those difficult questions are raised, at least they are out in the open where they can be fully explored. Both scenarios shed light on the case and give the situation a larger context. Dr. King’s widow and son both testified in favor of Ray’s latest appeal. The family’s stance indicates the depth of concern over accuracy in this case. Regardless of the outcome, it’s important that questions are answered with solid information, not misguided speculation. Oliver Stone has expressed interest in looking at the King assassination, and that should be warning enough.