What We Know About Why James Earl Ray Killed Martin Luther King Jr.

6 minute read

Wednesday marks 50 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the second-floor balcony near his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he had been supporting black sanitation workers on strike for better pay and working conditions.

Fifty years later, some questions linger about why exactly the civil rights leader was targeted and whether the shooter acted alone.

Findings by federal authorities and the House Select Committee on Assassinations are confident about some things. James Earl Ray, a career criminal who had briefly served in the U.S. Army, shot the advocate of non-violent resistance. Ray was spotted at the scene and, almost immediately after the killing, his fingerprints were found on the gun. Those prints were already among the FBI’s records for wanted individuals. Ray was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport on June 8, 1968, a few weeks after the crime. He was believed to have been en route to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which was at the time a haven for white supremacists. On July 19, he returned to U.S. and the following March he pleaded guilty to murdering King. He got a 99-year prison sentence, which he served until he died of liver failure due to hepatitis C on Apr. 23, 1998, at the age of 70.

But not everyone was convinced that the story stopped there — in part because Ray’s guilty plea stopped a trial from proceeding.

“There was a huge amount of evidence presented in Memphis that didn’t see the light of day in a public forum,” says Hampton Sides, an expert on this topic and author of Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His ­Assassin. “I think that contributed to the sense of conspiracy, like a ‘What are they hiding?’ kind of thing.” (Sides also appears in the PBS American Experience documentary on this subject, Roads to Memphis, airing Tuesday.)

In fact, the idea that there had been a conspiracy to kill King — that, even if Ray fired the gun, he did so at the behest of larger forces — began to spread right away, and not without some reason. As Sides points out, it isn’t surprising that members of King’s family and his fellow civil-rights leaders would have suspected that some larger government conspiracy to kill the minister must been at play. After all, the FBI stalked King and his cohort in order to, as Sides puts it, “ruin and smear the civil rights movement.” The ugly reach of that campaign has only become clearer over the years.

It didn’t help that Ray’s story kept changing. Three days after pleading guilty he recanted his confession, and for the next 28 years maintained his innocence, but by then it was too late. At one point, he claimed a person named “Raul” told him to kill King, but there’s no convincing proof of such an idea, according to Sides. Ray was a known criminal, on the lam after escaping a Missouri state prison when he committed the assassination, and had more than two dozen known aliases for himself before he was put behind bars again. He broke out of prisons so many times that he earned the nickname “the Mole.”

Most famously, in 1997 a dying Ray told Dexter King, his victim’s son, that he didn’t do it. That claim prompted the family to push unsuccessfully for a new trial. Ray died while that campaign was ongoing, but — though the King family did win $100 in a 1999 wrongful death suit after the man charged as being part of a conspiracy didn’t show up to the trial — an official inquiry reiterated that the evidence against Ray was “overwhelming” and that there was no credibility to various theories that anyone else had been involved.

That doesn’t mean there are no questions left.

Ray’s unreliability has meant the only way to find out what might have motivated him is to study the people he associated with and admired. Those facts leave no surprise as to why a man such as Ray would murder a man whose life’s work was focused on racial equality. Ray’s lawyer J.B. Stoner was a known white supremacist, and Ray — who also made clear his admiration for Hitler — had done volunteer work for the 1968 presidential campaign of Alabama’s former segregationist Governor George Wallace, who had gone head-to-head with King in Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. But that biography doesn’t explain why or how Ray moved from committing property crime and supporting racists, to killing a national icon. “Something triggered something in him,” Sides says, but exactly what that trigger was is unclear.

Experts have also studied Ray’s movements leading up to the assassination, including a mysterious trip to New Orleans that March and a move to Atlanta, the funding and logistics of which raise questions.

“I do think [Ray] had help, but I never found any proof that a group helped him,” says Sides. “I found gaps in his movements that are mysterious and you just don’t know who he’s meeting with. The source of his money is the single biggest question.”

So, despite 50 years of evidence fingering James Earl Ray and a consensus about his role among most scholars who study King, some people remain unconvinced. That some Americans didn’t trust — and still don’t trust — the government’s conclusion on King’s murder says a lot about what was going on in America in the 1960s and ’70s, when the Vietnam War and Watergate torpedoed American’s trust in government. According to Pew, the percentage of Americans who said they could “trust the federal government to do the right thing nearly always or most of the time” went from an all-time high of 77% in 1964 to 36% by the end of the 1970s.

With rates currently down to half that in 2018 (18%), these theories seem unlikely to go away any time soon.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com