Childhood & Early Life
James Earl Ray was born in a poor family on March 10, 1928 in Alton, Illinois, USA. His father’s name was George Ellis Ray and his mother’s name was Lucille. He was of Irish, Scots, and Welsh ancestry. Ray had seven siblings.
James Earl Ray was raised as a catholic and had conservative religious beliefs from his childhood.
Earl Ray’s family had problems with the law enforcement ever since he was a child. Ray’s father forged a check and hence had to shift his family to Ewing, Missouri to escape enforcement authorities. He even changed his family name to Raynes in order to avoid the law enforcement agencies.
Ray left school when he was just fifteen due to his family’s financial condition. He later joined the American army at the end of the Second World War and served in Germany.
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Early Criminal History
Early Ray had a criminal history starting from the time he left the American Army. He was first convicted for a burglary in California in the year 1949. Law enforcement agencies believe that he started indulging in criminal activities as he could not support himself financially.
In the year 1952, he served a two year prison sentence for the armed robbery of a cab driver. Soon after his release from prison, he was again convicted for mail fraud in Hannibal, Missouri and served three prison sentences at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
In the year 1959, he was caught stealing $120 from a Kroger Store in St. Louis. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison. He escaped from the prison hiding in a truck that was transporting bread from the prison bakery.
After his escape, Early Ray was continuously on the move and travelled across USA, Canada, and Mexico. In 1967, he returned to the United States (Los Angeles) from Mexico and took dancing classes in a bartending school.
While taking dancing classes, he was attracted to the presidential campaign of George Wallace. Ray believed in white supremacy and had strong prejudice against the black people. He volunteered for Wallace’s campaign and was very disappointed when Wallace could not win the campaign.
While he was still in Los Angeles, Ray had the desire to immigrate to Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) where a white minority regime declared independence from England in the year 1965.
In the year 1968, Ray underwent through a facial reconstruction surgery to hide his identity in Los Angeles. Now confident that he could not be recognized, he again began a cross-country drive to Atlanta, Georgia.
Starting with his contribution to the presidential campaign of Wallace, Ray developed a strong animosity towards Martin Luther King Jr. He believed that King was a serious threat to the dominance of white people in the USA and wanted to stop him through any means.
Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
In the year 1968, Earl Ray brought a Remington Model 760 Gamemaster .30-06-caliber rifle and a box with 20 cartridges. Along with the rifle, he also bought a 2X-7X scope to aim the target well.
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He told the clerks at the Aeromarine Supply Company in Brimingham, Alabama (from where he brought the rifle) that he was going on a hunting trip with his brother.
After buying the rifle, he came back to Atlanta where he came to know that King was planning a return trip to Memphis, Tennessee. After reading about the news in newspapers, he immediately drove to Memphis.
King was visiting Memphis to settle a strike by garbage workers. A staunch segregationist, Earl Ray could not stomach the integration policies of King. He decided to assassinate him to stop blacks from getting equal status to the whites.
King was shot by Earl Ray when the former was standing in the balcony of his motel room. Early Ray fired a single shot by standing in the bathtub of his shared room and balancing the rifle on a window ledge.
Ray fled from the scene immediately and could not be located immediately by the police. A two month long manhunt spanning five countries was launched by the law enforcement agencies to nab him. The manhunt was the most expensive and biggest for the FBI (at that time).
Ray was finally caught hiding in London in February 1968. He was immediately extradited to USA. Ray pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Life After Conviction
Even though he immediately pleaded guilty to the murder of King, Ray tried all his life to reverse his sentence.
In subsequent disclosures, Ray said that he was not the only person involved in the murder of King. He said that another person he met in Canada by the name Raoul was the actual person who plotted the murder and ultimately pulled the trigger.
In the early 1990s, he started suggesting that the government might be behind the assassination. This claim got some support from the 1978 special congressional committee which opined that Ray might not have acted alone in the assassination as it required meticulous planning.
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In the year 1977, Ray escaped from the prison for the second time along with six other convicts from the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary located in Petros, Tennessee. All the seven prisoners who escaped from the prison were recaptured within two days and sent back to the prison.
After his capture, his sentence was extended by one more year to 100 years. After he was recaptured, Ray hired attorney Jack Kershaw to promote his claim that he was not the person who actually shot King.
Kershaw and Ray approached the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations and got approval for the conduct of ballistics tests. The ballistics tests proved to be inconclusive and Ray remained in prison.
Kershaw made Ray to take a polygraph test as part of an interview with Playboy. In a story published based on the test, Playboy claimed that Ray had committed the crime alone.
After the publication of the Playboy story, Ray fired Kershaw when he found that Playboy paid him $11,000 for facilitating the interview.
Memphis Trial & Death
In 1997, King’s son Dexter met Ray in prison and asked him whether he had killed his father. Ray replied that he did not commit the crime. Dexter and his family too believed that he did not commit the crime and urged the government to grant a new trial to Ray.
The new trial was never granted. But a restaurant owner from Memphis was brought to the civil court in the year 1999 for being a part of the murder conspiracy. He was found to be legally liable and a sum of $100 was accepted by King’s family in restitution.
A mock trial of Ray in which he was represented by Dr. William Pepper was later telecast on TV to criticize the government for denying him the trial. King’ family never believed that Ray was the actual murderer.
Ray spent the rest of his life in prison and suffered with kidney and liver ailments in his last years. He was transferred to the maximum security facility called Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville which had hospital facilities.
Ray died on April 23, 1998 at the Columbia Nashville Memorial Hospital due to Hepatitis C at the age of 70. He did not want to be buried in the USA because he considered that the American government did not treat him fairly.
His body was cremated and his ashes were flown to the land of his forefathers, viz. Ireland. Ten years after his death, Ray’s brother John Larry Ray wrote a book along with writer Lyndon Barsten called ‘Truth At Last: The Untold Story Behind James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr’.