Who Killed Martin Luther King? An American Murder Mystery

Part four: Fear of a Black Planet

Ray arrived in Los Angeles a few weeks before the Pentagon meeting. After the languor of a lengthy stay in Mexico, where Ray contemplated permanent emigration, Ray returned to the US for what appears to be an attempt to remake himself. Ray arrived in Los Angeles, that city of reinvention, for what looks like an earnest attempt at a new beginning. Ray enrolled in bartender school and began dancing lessons. Ray was notoriously wooden and clumsy in his dancing, which the lessons reportedly did little to correct. He joined a lonely hearts club, a dating service, and pursued the arcane self-help of Psycho-Cybernetics, concocted by plastic surgeon Dr. Maxwell Maltz.

But what truly appears to have drawn Ray to Los Angeles was the presidential candidacy of former Alabama governor George Wallace, the icon of white supremacist government on his way to recording the most successful third-party candidacy of the last century. The entire campaign’s focus had become the effort to get Wallace on the California ballot for the 1968 general election, with Los Angeles as the epicenter of the bustling effort. “The capital of Alabama is not Los Angeles, but it might as well be,” quipped one Wall Street Journal reporter about the phenomenon. Wallace and his supporters had until December 31 to convince a little over 66,000 Californians to switch their party affiliation to Wallace’s American Independent Party in order achieve a place alongside the Republican and Democrat in the presidential contest of 1968. And in November 1967 the effort was attracting white supremacists and far-right radicals from across the country.

Since their initial battle in 1963, Wallace and King were inextricably tied, each the other’s antipode. As soon as Wallace assumed the Alabama governorship in 1963, he and King would become, until King’s death, the two titans of America’s racial battle. Wallace delivered his inaugural address, better known as the infamous “Segregation Forever” speech, in resolute defiance of the movement King would be bringing to Wallace’s Birmingham in just a matter of weeks. Wallace was the only man personally addressed in King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech that summer. If King had become, by the mid-sixties, the national avatar of black liberation, Wallace was the leader of its opposition, the face of apartheid in the American South. In the spring and summer of 1963, King and Wallace would square off in Birmingham in the final battle to end the Alabama’s regime of legal apartheid. Wallace would lose.

So, when Wallace announced his presidential candidacy in 1967, his campaign became a white supremacist cause celebre and served to attract extremists from across the racist right wing. In the weeks before Ray came to LA, the Los Angeles Times reported that “[e]xtremists do much of the hard work of organizing and raising funds for Wallace.” The paper named the John Birch Society, whose literature was found in Ray’s Atlanta motel room he briefly visited after leaving Memphis, alongside the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan as feeder groups to the campaign. California ballot drive director Tom Turnipseed was even surprised by the extremists his boss was attracting. One of Turnipseed’s “top people in Los Angeles” took the campaign chief to his truck outside the campaign’s headquarters and pulled the tarp back from the truck bed to reveal “all kinds of military weapons: bazookas, machine guns.” Turnipseed was surprised and asked what the weaponry was for. The Wallace staffer replied that it was for his militia, who were preparing for some manner of white uprising or race war.

Ray was a committed loner, had never been any sort of joiner, and his self-interest was of the narrowest sort. And yet, rather suddenly, Ray was taken with the candidacy of Wallace and enlisted as an eager volunteer in the California ballot drive. Biographer Hampton Sides describes Ray as a Wallace “evangelist” during this time. Upon arriving in his new apartment in LA, Ray had his phone installation expedited on the grounds that he needed it for his work on the Wallace campaign. Ray even granted fantastic favors for acquaintances on the condition they meet him at the Wallace headquarters to add their names to the petition to get the candidate on the ballot. It’s worth noting that when Ray’s lawyer pushed him to plead guilty in the eventual 1969 trial, the two fought the most ferociously over a stipulation referring to Ray’s work for the Wallace campaign. Ray demanded it be left off the plea, suggesting Ray knew that his work for Wallace spoke of motivations.

Ray is often described as lacking a politics. He was only a simple criminal, with ideals no loftier than the next score. “Ray was certainly not fundamentally motivated by anything as esoteric as politics,” write Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock in The Awful Grace of God. They find that a racist motivation for killing King “seems unrealistic with regard to what we actually know of James Earl Ray.” King friend and SCLC organizer Hosea Williams described Ray as a “two-bit redneck” with neither the wherewithal nor political motivation to kill King. Writers such as Mark Lane and William Pepper, two who have sought to exonerate Ray and find a conspiracy, go out of their way to present an apolitical Ray. But this might be a misunderstanding not of Ray but of how figures like Wallace radically alter societies, how they act as accelerants, how they catalyze.

In late 1967 and early 1968 Ray left enough evidence to reveal an accelerating interest in far-right, white supremacist politics. Ray’s racism had hitherto remained in a mostly inert state, like that of many whites of the time, but in late 1967 Ray left a trail of clues pointing to a sudden interest in white supremacy, not as an abstract notion but as an applied politics: white nationalism, the active and willful use of state power to subjugate. Ray’s bigotry was activated like that of so many others by the Wallace phenomenon, whose campaign was said to be animating latent racism across the country. King was the leader seen as having secured the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, and Wallace was the man, if there was one, to restore the sudden loss of white power. To many, Wallace’s campaign represented a new viability of white supremacist government. And if the past served to predict, King was the obstacle.

While in California, Ray was in some manner of contact with the Los Angeles chapter of the John Birch Society, the far-right fringe group whose 100,000 members saw in the progressive change of the sixties a weakening of white America. As Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in We Were Eight Years in Power, each landmark victory for black Americans was met with white backlash, and the victories of the Civil Rights Era, especially the legislative victories of 1964 and 1965, propelled the growth of radical groups like the Birchers and the Wallace candidacy. The John Birch Society trafficked in the white nationalism of Wallace and saw, like Wallace, that white supremacy was both a domestic and an international battle.

Ray, too, was convinced of the international dimension of white supremacy. It was in Los Angeles, in late December, that Ray wrote to the American-Southern African Council, a Washington, D.C. group dedicated to improving the image of the last remaining white-ruled apartheid states, Rhodesia and South Africa. In his letter Ray notes that it was the John Birch Society of Los Angeles who provided him with the address. In early 1968, while still in Southern California, Ray also exchanged correspondence with the Orange County chapter of the Friends of Rhodesia, whose president helpfully answered Ray’s inquiries about emigrating to the white-supremacist stronghold. We don’t know whether Ray had already decided to kill King during this time or not, but it well appears that an apartheid government founded on white supremacy is what Ray sought, either through a Wallace presidency in the United States or in white-run Rhodesia. All signs point to Rhodesia being Ray’s destination when he was questioned in London’s Heathrow airport en route to Brussels, with the Belgian capital being only a necessary waypoint for the visa-less Ray. Lisbon, too, had been only a means to get to Southern Africa through the Portuguese colony of Angola.

It appears that in a matter of mere months Ray had tilted toward hardened white supremacist. And it is King himself who helps explain how Wallace called the racist violence of Ray into being. In early 1967, King, asked about a potential Wallace candidacy, warned that it “would appeal mainly to extremist elements in our society, and I think it would create the atmosphere for new bigotry, new hatred, and ultimately new violence.” Wallace’s power was not in the mere ability to attract like minds. Any politician does that. King warned that Wallace’s power was alchemical, transmuting society’s quiet biases into active hatred, calling violence into being, and precipitating the sort of conflict figures like King work so hard to circumvent. King had watched in Birmingham years before how his forces and those led by Wallace met and how Wallace’s martial white supremacism invited violence and terrorism, sometimes quite explicitly.

Wallace was seen to create a climate of license, beginning with his inaugural address, the “Segregation Forever” speech, issued just two months before King and his movement would arrive in Birmingham. Wallace’s speech began by evoking the war fought to establish and maintain the Confederate slave state, what Wallace called the “Great Anglo-Saxon Southland.” Later in the speech, Wallace pivoted to the active sites of colonial white rule in Southern Africa (to which Ray would eventually try to emigrate), aligning his vision with that of Rhodesia and South Africa. Wallace was skilled at evoking martial themes of white rule while avoiding language that explicitly called for violence. Racists may be ignorant, but they’re not dumb; and the new license offered them by Alabama’s new leader was heard loud and clear. Many saw the white terrorist attacks, bombings and shootings in 1963 Birmingham to be carried out by a paramilitary wing of the political movement led by Wallace, much like Hezbollah or the Sinn Fein, political parties with martial branches.

A series of bombings, police shootings and attacks by Klan mobs beset black Birmingham after King arrived to lead a movement against the state’s apartheid rule. On September 15, terrorists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four black girls. Dr. King pointed the blame squarely at Wallace following the attack: “The governor said things, did things which caused these people to feel that they were aided and abetted by the highest officer in the state. The murders of yesterday stand as blood on the hands of Governor Wallace.” Wallace was an early master of a political strategy of stoking white fear, anger and feelings of persecution while avoiding language that was easily isolable and identified as provocation. Did Wallace direct white terrorists from the podium? No. But King recognized the social dynamic of Wallace’s posture and rhetoric in the milieu of Alabama in 1963. King knew how Wallace did not have to explicitly call for violence for his words to bring it into being.

And in 1967, King warned that Wallace was an accelerant as a presidential candidate, that violence followed Wallace, flowed from Wallace. “Just the candidacy itself, I think, will arouse a lot of things that we don’t need alive today,” King warned from his personal experience. And indeed Wallace’s campaign events were very often the site of violent clashes with progressive protesters, something Wallace reveled in on the campaign trail. The campaign was a phenomenon that forged white anger into violence, and a wandering criminal from Missouri was one whose inchoate anger was shaped into violence. Brother Jerry Ray explained to author George McMillan how James was “getting caught up in the Wallace campaign” in late 1967 and that “he had it in his head that it would help Wallace if King wasn’t around.” Like the terrorists of Birmingham, Ray soon determined that collecting signatures for Wallace wasn’t the most effective way of helping his cause.

Read Part 5

Writer — bylines at Salon, Alternet, McSweeney’s, Flagpole Magazine