It’s 9 AM on August 7, 1959, in Alton, Missouri.
A petty crook in his early-30s drives down the road in his blue 1950 Buick. He eyes the pistol resting in the passenger seat. He’s on his way to rob a grocery store.
This crook has already served time for a series of crimes. He knows if he gets caught again, he could go to prison for decades, but he’s willing to take the risk.
He pulls the Buick into the grocery store parking lot and kills the engine. He wipes the sweat from his hands, grabs his pistol, and steps out of the car.
He slams the door behind him and makes a beeline from the store. Once inside, he marches directly to the cash register.
The crook points his gun at a terrified cashier and demands all the money in the till. The cashier’s hands tremble as he opens the register and pulls out a stack of bills. The crook grabs the cash and runs for the door.
Back in the parking lot, he slides into the Buick. He tosses the gun and the money onto the passenger seat.
He fires up the engine, peels out of the parking lot, and barrels down the road. Glancing in the rearview mirror, he smiles as the grocery store fades into the distance behind him.
This small-time crook, James Earl Ray, first turned to a life of crime after the United States Army discharged him from his post in Germany in 1948. When James returned home, he struggled to find legitimate work and was riddled with financial problems. According to some people close to him, James blamed minority groups for his woes.
But after holding up the grocery store, James’ problems got worse. A witness placed James at the scene of the crime. Police tracked him down, and arrested James for armed robbery. A repeat offender, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison. That sentence will send James down a path that eventually have him committing an infamous crime that will leave an indelible scar on America.
On April 4th, 1968, Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King will be assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. A manhunt for the killer will ensue, and the evidence will lead the FBI to James Earl Ray. After being captured overseas and brought back to America, James will plead guilty to the first-degree murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on March 10th, 1969.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this isHistory Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 10th: Dr. King’s Assassin Pleads Guilty.
Act One: James escapes from prison
It’s April 23rd, 1967 at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. James Earl Ray walks into the prison bakery for his regular work assignment. He nods politely to the guard and his fellow inmates and heads toward the bakery’s loading area.
There, James and several inmates fill large boxes with bread from the prison bakery. They move the boxes to a loading zone, where they’ll be put into the back of a truck and delivered to a local farm. James works steadily, biding his time. He doesn’t show it, but he’s nervous. Because today is the day he’s going to break out of prison.
James has served over seven years of his decades-long sentence. During that time, he tried to escape twice before using a makeshift ladder to scale the walls of the prison, but both of his attempts failed. Today, he has a much better plan: he’s going to escape on a bread truck.
When it’s nearly time for the truck to arrive, James quickly scans the bakery. He sees that the guards aren’t paying attention as usual. Assured the coast is clear, James rushes back to the loading area and gives a signal to the other inmates who are in on his plan.
They spring into action. The inmates grab a large box and help James climb inside. They close it with a lid and make sure James is completely hidden. When the truck arrives, the prisoners load James’ box onto the back of the truck along with the other bread boxes. Soon, the truck is outside the gates and pulls away from the prison.
At the first opportunity, James pushes his way out of the box and leaps out onto the road, a free man. Next, James contacts his brother to come pick him up. Before long, the Ray brothers unite and speed off to St. Louis.
From there, James travels to Chicago. He calls on some of his criminal associates in the city to help him with his primary need: money. Many are happy to pitch in, and they give James enough money to go on the run and hopefully, escape the law.
That summer of 1967, James travels under a false name across the United States, North, South, East, and West. He even spends time in Mexico and Canada. But he never stays in one place too long. He thinks it’s safer to keep moving. That is until he arrives in California. In November of 1967, James wanders into Los Angeles. And for the first time since his escape, he feels like he’s found a place where he belongs.
In the late 1960s, California is at the center of a growing Self-Help Movement that will hit its stride across the country in the 1970s. There are gurus of all kinds advertising that they hold the secrets to a happy life. And there are small groups and communes sprouting up and down the coast, all trying to find peace.
James views self-help as a chance to find purpose in his life. He tries everything from dance lessons in Long Beach to reading religious texts to attending sessions with a man who calls himself a “Master Hypnotist.” But it isn’t dance or hypnotism that ultimately gives James the sense of purpose he’s looking for, it’s a segregationist politician named George Wallace.
George Wallace served as governor of Alabama from 1963 to 1967. He rose to power on the back of his staunch segregationist beliefs, promising he would “stand in the schoolhouse door” to stop the enrollment of Black children in “white” Alabama schools. After his first stint as governor, Wallace traveled out West to tap into the wealth of California’s small but powerful rightwing community. Wallace used the support of these Californians to help fund his third-party run for President in the 1968 election.
James catches clips of Wallace’s campaign speeches and rallies on the nightly news, and he finds himself drawn in. Wallace speaks out against the progressive movement of the 1960s and attacks anti-war and Black nationalist protests. Wallace argues that liberal politicians and angry minorities are coming for white working-class jobs and homes, and Wallace says these groups will bring violence to once-safe neighborhoods.
The more James listens, the more he agrees with Wallace. During this time, James grows fixated on the idea that white Americans must fight back and stand up against progressive and civil rights movements. So within months, James will travel to Memphis, Tennessee to play his part.
Act Two: Martin Luther King marches in Memphis
It’s March 28, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. Martin Luther King Jr. leads 5,000 protestors on a march through the city.
In February, two Black Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole, and Robert Walker were killed on the job when a sanitation truck malfunctioned. The deaths of Cole and Walker enraged their Black colleagues in the Memphis Department of Public Works, who saw the incident as a result of a long history of abuse toward Black city employees. Not long after the deaths of Cole and Walker, 1,300 sanitation workers went on strike. They demanded safer working conditions and increased wages. The strike quickly garnered support from civil rights leaders throughout the country, who saw the treatment of workers as part of the wide-scale racial injustice that Black communities faced on a daily basis. One of these leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has come to Memphis to show his support by leading a march through the city.
As the marchers move up Beale Street, King grows concerned though. He hears shouts from the crowd as skirmishes break out. King desperately wants the march to remain non-violent, so he urges those who can hear him to stay calm. But it’s too late. King hears storefront windows shatter behind him, and he sees the police move in on the crowd. Staff members of King’s civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, grow concerned for his safety. Several of them pull King out of the throng and rush him to a nearby hotel.
But with King gone, the violence escalates. As looting starts, the police pull out their clubs and start attacking people in the streets. A 16-year-old Black boy is shot and killed by a police officer, and other protesters are tear gassed as they seek refuge in a church. When King learns of the chaos that occurred after he was gone, he considers not returning to Memphis in the future. But he watches the following day as a group of over 200 men on strike take to the streets again to engage in nonviolent protest. The strikers carry signs that read, “I am a Man.” Dr. King is moved. So before he leaves for Atlanta, he holds a press conference and announces that he will return to Memphis in the following days to further show his support for the strike.
True to his word, King returns to Memphis on April 3rd, 1968. He’s exhausted but resilient. He heads to the Masonic Temple to speak with Memphis sanitation workers and other supporters who have waded through a thunderstorm to hear him. There, King gives what will be his last public speech. He talks about the great eras of history in the past, and he lays out his hopes for the future. But as King nears the end of his speech, he talks about the dangers of the present:
"MARTIN: Then I got into Memphis, and some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. Or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? (crowd laughs) Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. (crowd cheers and claps) 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 has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I have 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."
The threat from the “sick white brothers” that King talked about in his speech is real. Weeks earlier, James Earl Ray left California and traveled across the country. On March 30th, not long after King announced he would return to Memphis, James buys a rifle in Birmingham, Alabama. From there, he travels to Memphis and takes a room in a boarding house across from the Lorraine Motel, where he knows King will be staying.
On April 4th, 1968, James walks into his bathroom, props his rifle on the window sill, takes aim at King’s hotel room, and waits. At around 6:00 PM, James watches through his rifle site as King steps out onto the balcony. He squeezes the trigger and watches his victim fall to the ground.
James quickly flees the room, discards the rifle on the street, and speeds out of Memphis in a white Mustang. Soon, he will go on the run in a desperate attempt to reach Rhodesia, an unrecognized state in Africa ruled, at the time, by an oppressive white minority.
But first, James makes his way to Canada. Using an alias, he acquires a Canadian passport and flies to England. But while James is escaping overseas, the FBI is on the hunt. They find the discarded rifle, and match the fingerprints to James’. The Bureau sends out an international call for help in tracking James down. And on June 8th, 1968, a Scotland Yard detective arrests James at London’s Heathrow Airport. Soon, he will be extradited to America where he’ll be forced to answer for his horrific crime.
Act Three: James pleads guilty
It’s March 10th, 1969 at the Shelby County Criminal Court in Tennessee.
James Earl Ray casts his eyes toward the ground as he stands before Judge Preston Batte. James is frightened. He knows the evidence against him is damning. He also knows that if he pleads not guilty and stands trial, he’ll likely receive the death penalty.
So James plays the only card he has left. He raises his head and tries to appear calm as he speaks to the judge. In lieu of a trial, James pleads guilty to the first-degree murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
The judge asks James if he understands that in addition to forgoing a trial, James’ plea also precludes him making any appeals. James says he understands. The judge asks James the same question again, making sure the conditions of the plea are crystal clear. Again, James says he understands. Judge Battle is satisfied. James’ plea is accepted, and he’s sentenced to 99 years in prison. The case of Martin Luther King’s assassination appears to be closed.
But three days later, James recants. He admits to purchasing the murder weapon, but says he did so at the request of a mysterious man he knows only as “Raoul.” James argues that he was a mere pawn in a wide-ranging conspiracy to kill Dr. King. But in the end, James’ attempt to rescind his plea fail. He will die in prison in 1998. Still, his extraordinary claims at the time spark a range of conspiracy theories that surround the assassination.
Some members of Dr. King’s family, including his wife Coretta Scott King, will come to believe in James’ innocence. She will later say, “There is abundant evidence of a major high-level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband.” But attorneys and law enforcement connected to the case maintain the evidence points to James Earl Ray only. Later investigations into the assassination will largely support their findings.
Still, none of the debate surrounding the assassination overshadows the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King or the message he shared in his final speech. His tireless work and enduring hope that one day his people would “make it to the Promised Land” continues to inspire generations of civil rights leaders and activists to fight for a better world. Dr. King’s legacy far outlives that of his assassin who pled guilty to his crime on March 10th, 1969.
Next on History Daily. March 11th, 1918. A US army cook becomes the first person diagnosed with the Spanish Flu, setting off the deadliest pandemic in modern history.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.