One of the most tragic and controversial events in Memphis history took place on April 4, 1968. That evening, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. King had come to Memphis in support of sanitation workers that were on strike due to poor working conditions and inadequate pay. While in town during this visit, he made his now famous, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in southwest Memphis. In retrospect, his words were eerily foretelling:
"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."
The next day, King and his lawyers spent a great deal of time in court. They were fighting an injunction barring King from leading a protest march. Though the issue was unresolved by the end of the day, King was reportedly looking forward to a dinner at the home of friends in the area. From there, the civil rights leader was scheduled to attend a meeting.
It was about 6:00 p.m. when King went out onto the balcony at the Lorraine Motel to chat with Reverend Jesse Jackson and musician Ben Branch who were in the parking lot below. After talking for a moment, King straightened up from the balcony and turned to go into his motel room. He never made it inside. A shot was fired from across the parking lot, striking the man in his right cheek, shattering his jaw, and then entering his spine. Though King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital nearby, he was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. He was only thirty-nine years old and left behind a wife and four children.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, attention was focused on a boardinghouse located across the parking lot from the Lorraine Motel. A preliminary investigation uncovered a hunting rifle that was equipped with a scope and a potential suspect. The suspect was a roomer at the boardinghouse who had been seen fleeing down the stairs seconds after the fatal gunshot was fired. He was initially identified as John Willard. When Willard’s white Ford Mustang was discovered in Atlanta days later, fingerprints found in the car matched those found on the rifle used in the assassination. Both sets of fingerprints belonged to an escaped convict named James Earl Ray. Ray had been using multiple aliases, including John Willard.
The authorities finally tracked Ray down in London. He was quickly extradited to Memphis and placed under constant watch in a special cell in the Shelby County jail. This ensured that Ray did not escape, and it also kept him safe from harm before his case went to trial.
At his attorney’s urging, Ray initially pled guilty to the shooting but maintained that the assassination was part of a large conspiracy. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Just days later, however, Ray recanted his confession and attempted to revoke his guilty plea, claiming that he had been coerced by his attorney. He took this claim all the way to the United States Supreme Court but was never granted a new trial.
Over the years, a number of conspiracy theories have emerged blaming everyone from the mafia to the U.S. government for the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Officially and legally, however, justice has been served. James Earl Ray died in prison in 1998.