Was James Earl Ray innocent?

The quest to uncover the truth about Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination has dominated much of my life

Published July 22, 2017 3:00PM (EDT)

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated.   (AP)
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated. (AP)

Excerpted with permission from "The Plot to Kill King" by Dr. William F. Pepper, Esq. Copyright 2016, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

Like most people, I accepted the official story about how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. I believe this was the result of my naiveté or perhaps the desire to put the loss of a friend behind me. In any case, when Dr. Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician and antiwar activist, and I traveled to Memphis for the memorial march on April 8, 1968, four days after the assassination, as far as I was concerned it was in the hands of the police.

Soul Rider

In the following years, I heard about inconsistencies in the state’s case and rumors of a conspiracy in which James Earl Ray was framed for Dr. King’s murder. Then in 1977 to 1978, following a conversation with the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and at his suggestion, I prepared for and conducted a five-hour interview with James Earl Ray. Since that time, the mystery of Dr. King’s assassination has dominated much of my life. In no small measure, I suppose, this is because of the responsibility I feel for having initially prompted him to oppose the Vietnam War. That stand was a major factor contributing to his death.

The intervening years have only strengthened my belief that Dr. King’s assassination constituted the greatest loss suffered by the Republic in the twentieth century. To understand his death, it is essential to realize that although he is popularly depicted and perceived as a civil rights leader, he was much more than that. A nonviolent revolutionary, he personified the most powerful force for the long-overdue social, political, and economic reconstruction of the nation.

Those in charge of the United States intelligence, military, and law enforcement machinery understood Dr. King’s true significance. They perceived his active opposition to the war and his organizing of the poor as grave disruptions to the stability of a society already rife with unrest. FBI Director Hoover, in particular, took the position that Dr. King was under communist control.

The last year of Dr. King’s life was during one of the most turbulent times in the history of the nation. Much of the civil unrest took the form of nationwide urban riots and was clearly the result of racial tensions, frustrations, and anger at oppressive living conditions and the endemic hopelessness of inner-city life. However, one cannot consider these explosions without taking into account the pervasive presence of the war, its legitimization of violence, and its overall impact on the neighborhoods of the country.

In the year running up to July 1967, the number of riots and other serious disruptions against public order had reached ninety-three in nineteen states. In August, an additional thirty-three riots occurred in thirty-two cities in twenty-two states.

Dr. King was at the center of it all. His unswerving opposition to the war and his commitment to bring hundreds of thousands of poor people to a Washington, DC, encampment in the spring of 1968 to focus Congress’s attention on the plight of the nation’s poor turned the government’s anxiety into utter panic. In retrospect, I believe that there was no way Dr. King was going to be allowed to lead this army of alienated poor to Washington to take up residence in the shadow of the Washington Memorial.

When army intelligence officers interviewed rioters in Detroit after the July 23, 1967, riot that left nineteen dead, eight hundred injured, and $150 million of property damaged, they were amazed to learn that the leader most respected by those violent teenagers was not Stokely Carmichael, nor H. Rap Brown, but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Six weeks after the Detroit riots, the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP), which I served as its executive director, scheduled a national convention over Labor Day weekend in Chicago. The gathering of five thousand delegates from all around the country and from every walk of life was expected to support a third-party presidential ticket of Dr. King and Dr. Spock. We now know the shock this prospect caused at the highest levels of government.

So caught up were we in the fight for social change that we didn’t appreciate the strength and determination of the opposition. It has become clear to me that by 1967 a siege mentality had descended on the nation’s establishment forces, including its federal law enforcement, intelligence, and military branches. At the best of times, “official” Washington and its appendages throughout the country are highly insular and protective. In 1967 to 1968, with the barbarians gathering just outside the gates of power, any move in defense of the system and its special economic interests would have been viewed as a patriotic duty. All significant organizations committed to ending the war of fostering social or economic change were infiltrated, subjected to surveillance, and/or subverted. NCNP was no exception.

This final book has been in development since 1978 and reflects a long-term effort to uncover the truth about Dr. King’s assassination. It does not cover the full scope of the investigation, since many leads were examined and discarded and much information, however interesting, ultimately turned out to be superfluous to the central story. In 1988, having come to finally believe that he was an unknowing scapegoat, I agreed to represent James Earl Ray. By 1990 I had become convinced that the only way to end his wrongful imprisonment would be to solve the case. The investigation, on which the book is based, has been focused on that goal. In every way possible I have sought to put evidence of James’s innocence before a court. Frustrated at every turn over this long-term effort, I now turn to the court of last resort—the American people.

This story has taken nearly four decades to unfold. The delay is largely the result of the creation and perpetration of a cover-up by government authorities at the local, state, and national levels, and the collaboration of the mainstream media, which is factually detailed in the epilogue of my book.

I have become convinced that had some of the honest, competent Memphis homicide detectives I have come to know over the years not met obstruction from within their own ranks, they could have ferreted out enough evidence to warrant indicting several Memphians on charges ranging from accessory before (or after) the fact, to conspiracy, to murder, to murder in the first degree. Among those indicted would have been some of their fellow officers. Even without official obfuscation, however, it’s unlikely that these detectives could have traced the conspiracy further afield to the various well-insulated sources and individuals who were criminally involved.

As will become increasingly clear, it was inevitable that such a local police investigation wouldn’t be allowed and that each and every politically sponsored official investigation since 1968 would misinform the public and cover up the truth.

Years of investigation, and a habeas corpus petition denial, led to the unscripted television mock trial in 1993 that resulted in a not guilty verdict. In addition, a civil trial in 1999 held responsible officials of the federal, state, and local governments. My subsequent investigation, over a further fifteen-year period, has unearthed powerful new evidence. The stories of several key witnesses, silent for decades, are revealed for the first time. Although we will never know each and every detail behind this most heinous crime, we now have enough hard facts to overwhelmingly support James Earl Ray’s innocence. The body of new evidence, if formally considered, would compel any independent grand jury to bring to account those guilty parties whom we have identified.

Ultimately, there are many victims in this case; Dr. King, James Earl Ray, their families, and the citizens of the United States. All have been victimized by the abject failure of their democratic institutions. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and its cover-up extends far and wide into all levels of government and public services. Through the extensive control of information and the failure of checks and balances, government has inevitably come to serve the needs of powerful special interests. As a result, the essence of democracy—government of, by, and for the people—has been terminally eroded, and replaced, in my view, by a dominant oligarchic ruling system.

Thus, what begins as a detective story ends as a tragedy of unimagined proportions: an American tragedy; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is dead; James Earl Ray died in prison; many of the guilty remain free, some even revered and honored; and our faith in what we thought we knew as the United States is shaken to the core.

For me, this is a story rife with sadness, replete with massive accounts of personal and public deception and betrayal. Its revelations and experiences have produced in the writer a depression stemming from an unavoidable confrontation with the depths to which human beings, even those subject to professional codes of ethics, have fallen. In addition, there is an element of personal despair that has resulted from this long effort, which has made me even question the wisdom of undertaking this task.

Far from being elated that the truth is now with us face-to-face, I feel consumed by a sadness that will be a lifelong emotional presence. One significant factor is facing the reality that one has misjudged the integrity and even the basic decency of individuals, some of whom have been friends or respected comrades over many years.

It is a traumatic realization that the use of political assassinations has all too often been successful at removing uncontrollable leaders whose commitment to substantive change of their societies had threatened the ruling forces, and thereby become so intolerable that physical removal remained the only option. This allowed for more compliant replacements and, in Dr. King’s case, a void that could not be filled. Two other leaders on J. Edgar Hoover’s “Prayer List,” President John F. Kennedy and president-in-waiting Robert F. Kennedy, were similarly removed. What has emerged is a perceptible change in public policies and civil society often serving the interests of the sponsoring ruling elite.

In my view, Paul Craig Roberts, the former Assistant Treasury Secretary under Ronald Reagan; Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton University; and Professor Benjamin of Northwestern University—the latter two writing in the journal Perspectives on Politics—are correct in their assertion that representative democracy in America has (subsequent to the 1960s’ fulfillment of the Hoover/Tolsen “Prayer List”) yielded to an oligarchic system of government and that this government is orchestrated by wealthy private-interest groups and individuals, resulting in a US government with a superficial resemblance to a functioning representative democracy.

As discussed later on with regard to this particular case, a principal focus in the demise of democracy and an accountable government is the concentration of the media in a few hands (see the epilogue). A formerly diverse media with significant independence is today concentrated in four mega-corporations. The selective issuance of broadcasting licenses ensures that the government will not be challenged on significant issues, particularly regarding political assassinations and false-flag “terrorist” events. Such acts are the lifeblood of the American oligarchy and its rulers.

It has been a source of great personal sadness that I have known three of the principal victims and represented as chief counsel two of the alleged assassins about whose innocence I have come to have no doubt.

Having had the advantage of being able to keep an eye open for new information on the Dr. King case for nearly four decades, I have had the advantage of seeing evidence emerge from the ether. I believe we can now state with certainty that not only is this assassination conclusively explained, but in the process of completing the investigation, we now know more about this assassination than about any similar assassination in history.


By William F. Pepper

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