Ray Pleds Fuilty to Assassinating King

On March 10, 1969, James Earl Ray pled guilty to assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis, where he gave his infamous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. In this speech, he talked about the 1958 attempt on his life. Then, King got prophetic:
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats … or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”[1]

After the speech, King returned to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. The next evening, he said his last words. Directed towards musician Ben Branch, King said, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”[2] King then leaned over the balcony to speak to Rev. Jesse Jackson. As he did so, a shot rang out.

Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in the face by a .30-06 bullet fired from a Remington Model 760 rifle. The bullet entered his right cheek and broke his jaw and several vertebrae. It traveled down his spinal cord, where it severed his jugular vein and major arteries before lodging in his shoulder.

King was shot at 6:01 pm. He was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where doctors opened his chest and performed a cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Despite their best efforts, King never regained consciousness and was declared dead at 7:05 pm. According to biographer Taylor Branch, King’s autopsy revealed that his heart was in the condition of a sixty-year-old man, most likely due to his thirteen years leading the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was only thirty-nine when he died.

James Earl Ray was arrested in London two months later. Witnesses to the assassination had said that they saw a man that looked like Ray fleeing from a boarding house across the street from King’s motel. Police later found a package dumped close to the site that contained a rifle and binoculars. Both had Ray’s fingerprints on them. A worldwide manhunt took place, and he was eventually found at Heathrow Airport in London.

On March 10, 1969, Ray pled guilty to killing King. On the advice of his attorney, he entered a guilty plea in an attempt to avoid death by electrocution. Instead, he was sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison.

Nevertheless, Ray recanted his plea two days later. He fired his attorney, Percy Foreman, whom he referred to as “Percy Fourflusher.” Instead, he presented a new story that included a man named ‘Raul’ whom he had met on a train. He began to say that he did not personally shoot King. However, he did say that he may have been “partially responsible without knowing it.” Ray would later go on to tell journalist William Huie that he had left his fingerprints on the rifle purposely in plain sight so that he would become a famous criminal. Huie concluded that most of what Ray told him was lies.

Ray had told Huie that he was so brilliant that he would undoubtedly escape prison. Or, if that did not happen, he was then convinced that George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, would win the presidency and pardon him. George Wallace never became president, and James Ray spent the rest of his life in jail.

In a strange twist of fate, Ray met with Martin Luther King’s son, Dexter, in 1997. During the meeting, Dexter asked him, “I just want to ask you, for the record, did you kill my father?” Ray replied, “No. No I didn’t.”[3] The King family publicly urged that Ray be granted a new trial. They even went so far as to get him a mock trial televised by HBO. William Pepper, a friend of King’s, represented Ray. They did this in an attempt to convince the government to give him a new trial. Their attempt was unsuccessful.

James Ray died on April 23, 1998, at the age of seventy.

The House Select Committee on Assassinations, the Shelby County district attorney’s office, and three different investigations led by the U.S. Justice Department all hold that James Earl Ray did kill Martin Luther King Jr.


[1] “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Archived February 16, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
[2] Branch, Taylor (2007). At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68. America in the King Years. New York City: Simon & Schuster, p. 766.
[3] Kevin Sack, “Dr. King’s Son Says Family Believes Ray Is Innocent”, New York Times, March 28, 1997.

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