How MLK’s Murderer Was Caught
To call James Earl Ray a murderer is not to trivialize the man he murdered. It personalizes the political just as surely as assassin politicizes the personal. And just because it takes two asses to spell the word doesn’t mean it takes two to comprise its meaning. One is more than enough, even if that one possesses a political philosophy no more evolved than that of Jared Loughner. Ray’s ideological vision didn’t go an inch beyond redneck racism, wisdom received like genetic coding from his family. To call James Early Ray a murderer does not trivialize the man he murdered, but it refuses the dignify the man who did the murdering.
Because of its well-known animosity toward King, the FBI famously pulled out all the stops in tracking his killer, whom they caught, but the FBI was also responsible, albeit in an indirect way, for his murder in the first place–and for his murder, moreover, on the balcony of some cheap motel. They distributed a charge that King had been a hypocrite for urging blacks to boycott white businesses in Memphis, when he himself had stayed at one of the city’s fancier hotels. “[T]his ensured that the next time King and his party came to Memphis,” writes Hampton Sides in his terrific book Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Hunt for His Assassin, “they would stay at his old hangout, the thoroughly exposed, open-courtyard (but black-owned) Lorraine Motel.”
King had been engaged in a newfound cause, the so-called Poor People’s Campaign, which his disgruntled staff, believing his energies better expended elsewhere, had taken to calling the War on Sleep. King was in Memphis to show solidarity with striking garbage workers, and his aides thought his talents were more usefully expended elsewhere. At a rally for the workers held after King’s death, Sides tells us, several clergymen “pointed out a deep biblical irony: Jesus Christ was crucified between two thieves, upon a mound of trash.”
Well, that’s one way of looking at it, certainly, but whenever someone of King’s genuine crusading fervor violently dies, by the gun of someone like Ray, no further dignification is necessary. The death automatically becomes its own kind of dignity. Which is another reason why it was so important that the real killer be found. The FBI originally believed, with good reason, that the killer may have been the jealous husband of one of King’s mistresses. The conflicting truth was found out soon enough, and when it was, the FBI spared nothing in pursuing their man. This pursuit, of course, is the real substance of Sides’s book.
They had “never pursued a fugitive with greater patience or imagination,” according to Cartha DeLoach, assistant director of the FBI, and after reading Hellhound on His Trail, you know exactly what he means. Ray, from the time his shot was fired, was a man in instant and constant flight–and extensive flight, too. After fleeing to Canada, he made it to London, by forging a passport, but the passport had misspelled his alias. He eventually had it corrected. He was boarding a flight from London to Rhodesia when the ticket agent saw the voided passport sticking out of his shirt pocket and asked him about it. That’s how Scotland Yard found the man they had known to be looking for. And they had known to be looking for him because the Canadian Mounties, at the request of the FBI, had gone through a quarter-million passports, in the days before image-recognition software, looking to match a file photo on Ray with a photo from his forged passport.
That they found Ray’s forged passport in this way is almost miraculous, and so it’s easy to understand the frustration of Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a Johnson appointee sympathetic to Civil Rights, when the London officials who caught Ray said they couldn’t get his fingerprints, thereby sealing the capture, without his consent–not according to British law. “Damnit, man, give this guy Snead [his alias on the passport] a glass of water. Then take the glass and lift the latents.” That’s precisely what they did.
“The nine-week investigation,” writes Sides,
was bold, relentless, methodical, creative, multidimensional. It had cost nearly two million dollars and tied down more than half of six-thousand agents across the country. In many ways, it was one of the FBI’s finest hours. All the advances the young Hoover had pushed for during the bureau’s infancy–centralized fingerprint analysis, the state-of-the-art crime lab, a ballistics unit, a continental force of agents working in lockstep–had come fully into play in capturing Ray. For a single fugitive accused of a single crime, it was by far the most ambitious dragnet the FBI ever conducted. Ray had led them on a chase of more than twenty-five thousand miles.
Not getting rid of his old passport–and then taking a drink of water–was how Ray had been found and charged, but it was because of what he did get rid of that the authorities knew who they needed to find. When in a panic he dropped his gun, fleeing the scene of the shooting, he gave investigators just what they needed to start piecing together an identity for this man of many aliases, acquiring new aliases all the time. “What an enigmatic piece of work James Earl Ray had turned out to be,” writes Sides, “far stranger than anyone could have imagined.” He had already escaped from one maximum-security prison, pre-assassination, and, after convicted of killing King, he would escape from another. The hunt for James Earl Ray was on again. This time they found him in the woods near the prison, at the lead of hellhounds trained to hunt in silence. He had been living for days on nothing but wheat germ. “For a 49-year-old man who didn’t know the mountains that well,” said the man who’d trained and supervised the dogs, “Ray really didn’t do bad.”
Ray had confessed to the crime, and soon spent the remainder of his years trying to retract that confession. Conspiracy theories were proffered from many angles, but none of them took hold. The nature of the crime and its motive, the evidence in all its overwhelming totality, was irrefutable. Some blacks in prison who had no good use for Martin’s message of nonviolence stabbed Ray, and that’s how he died–not from the stabbing itself, but from the Hepatitis C in the blood with which his body was replenished.
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