Who Killed Martin Luther King? An American Murder Mystery
Since the spring of 1963, Wallace and King had publicly fought as proxies for the central discord present in the country since its founding. The American democratic impulse has always been met and measured by an authoritarian one, and in 1968 King represented the former: accelerated and expanded democracy, the redistribution of political and economic power to accompany the voting franchise extended to black Southerners. Conversely, Wallace emerged onto the national stage to lead the reactionary response and in so doing inaugurated the Southernization of American conservative politics. Eventually named the “Southern Strategy,” the Republican Party would go on to adopt Wallace’s project to deploy Southern racial politics at the national level. The Southern Strategy was successful, flipping the formerly Democratic Party-controlled South to the Republicans over the course of several decades, but not without making the Republican Party into a Southern party. (In 1980, then-candidate Ronald Reagan, a Californian, was seen to adopt and perfect the Southern Strategy when he infamously launched his presidential campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi, a place best known for being where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Reagan used the Wallace-esque language of “states’ rights” in the speech, very much tailored for a white Southern audience.)
Both King and Wallace were simultaneously nationalizing, or even globalizing, their Southern fight. King’s aim for his poverty campaign in April 1968 was to universalize the black struggle and seek the eradication of other analogous domains of oppression, like poverty and colonialism. Wallace, conversely, sought to expand the South’s white supremacist politico-cultural regime nationally. Wallace, like King, even saw his project as part of a global movement. As early as his “Segregation Forever” speech, ostensibly an inaugural address by the newly elected leader of a US state, Wallace spoke in international terms, likening his Alabama to the white-ruled regimes of Southern Africa, like Ray’s beloved Rhodesia. White supremacy and white rule were not merely for his Alabama and the old Confederacy but for the US broadly, indeed for the world, the African continent especially. Wallace decried the liberal as one who sought to “persecute the international white minority to the whim of the international colored majority.” King, meanwhile, grew to see the black struggle in the US as kin to the Third World anti-colonial rebellions against the white rule sought by Wallace and Ray. In his speech against the Vietnam War and US empire in April 1967, King sought to be on “the right side of the world revolution,” the generalized rebellion by people of color and the economic underclass which Wallace sought to maintain.
Ray’s assassination of King must be considered in these contexts. Ray was certainly guilty, and likely unaided and independent in the act, but it was not for himself that he did it. The entire world was rumbling in 1968, and Ray and King were brought together like the leading edges of two great tectonic plates. It was James Earl Ray’s finger that pulled the trigger, but the bullet flew in the preservation of white power. White supremacy was always going to find someone to kill King; Ray just happened to be the one who did it. Ray was simply a foot soldier in the service of whiteness, in the service of an entire national architecture of power founded on white supremacy. King was the greatest threat to that politico-economic order yet to have emerged, and for that his death was all but foretold. King himself predicted his own early, violent demise. If Ray hadn’t killed King someone else almost assuredly would have. King died because white supremacy lives by, on and through black death. Ray was the killer because someone had to be. This is not to exculpate James Earl Ray but rather to avoid the error of quarantining the blame tidily in Ray alone and not understanding King’s death as a product of American whiteness and its preservation.
Ray was the killer, but it’s eminently understandable why so many assume guilt in a government faction. Place James Earl Ray and J. Edgar Hoover side by side in a police lineup; who is more suspicious? Ray’s conversion to political assassin was quick, to the point of being unbelievable. There is no long trajectory to be drawn that predictably places Ray at Bessie Brewer’s flophouse with a rifle aimed at King. Meanwhile, the years-long COINTELPRO project sought the death of a number of civil rights and leftist leaders, including King. The distinction, if there is one, between Hoover’s COINTELPRO effort and the deadly secret police of authoritarian regimes is slight. It might be that the only reason the civil rights-era FBI is not generally regarded as a secret police is that its aim was to preserve and maintain white power, which benefit extended, and extends, to the still-powerful majority.
The FBI is far from blameless. They could even be considered complicit. Hoover and his men worked to create the conditions for hatred and fear of King. The examples are plentiful, but a particular effort shines a light on how the Bureau acted to sow white antipathy toward King. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the newspaper where Ray grew up and where his family still lived, ran an anti-King editorial the weekend Ray bought the gun in Alabama before traveling to Memphis. The Globe-Democrat’s editor, George Duncan Bauman, was one of the many newsmen that Hoover had cultivated relationships with to run propaganda for the FBI. With the poor people’s campaign quickly approaching, the FBI sent a memo to Bauman in an attempt to have the paper push the inflammatory FBI line on King. The 1976 congressional committee on King’s assassination found that “language in the editorial was virtually plagiarized from the FBI memorandum.” The ghost-written editorial ran as the paper’s Saturday and Sunday official statement from the publisher and editors.
“It is time all Americans look at Martin Luther King and see him not as they wish him to be, but as he is,” the “editors” warned. “By his actions he is proving to be one of the most menacing men in America today […] Rev. King is more dangerous than Stokely Carmichael because of his non-violent masquerade […] The deception no longer hoodwinks intelligent Americans […] Memphis could be only the prelude to a massive bloodbath in the nation’s capital in several weeks.”
None other than John Ray, James’ brother still living in the St. Louis area, read the editorial. The assassination committee obtained evidence that John Ray “read and absorbed” the editorial and that “the editorial made a significant impression on him.” John Ray even recounted the editorial 4 years later to author George McMillan in a letter. In the letter, John Ray still echoed the FBI’s language, voiced by the paper, explaining that King was a dangerous and evil manipulator. James Earl Ray’s brother was practically being ventriloquized by Hoover just days before Ray left for Memphis. It’s unknown whether John spoke to James about the article, but it’s clear that the FBI’s anti-King propaganda reached deep into Ray’s world.
In that same 1972 letter, John Ray explained to McMillan that his brother was not unique: “There are millions of Rays in the United States with the same background and beliefs.” There was nothing special or exceptional about Ray; he was just one of the millions to do it. Hoover and his men likely understood this, that sowing hatred among the millions might crystallize a killer. We don’t know whether James read or was told of the editorial, but what’s certain is that the many efforts like it by the FBI kept those millions of Rays angry, scared and hateful. From there it’s only a short stop to being radicalized.
The deep irony is that Ray, the Ray family, and those “millions of Rays” were precisely the sort of Americans King’s revolution was to serve. King was organizing a multi-racial campaign the likes of which the nation had never seen. Poor whites, some who’d been raised in Klan communities of Appalachia, joined 78 nonblack minority leaders and King’s SCLC just weeks before the assassination to organize the occupation of Washington. Taylor Branch recounts how King’s lieutenants “checked repeatedly to make sure King wanted the hardscrabble white groups to be included, and the answer was always simple: ‘Are they poor?’” This was a revolution to eradicate poverty, one whose foremost beneficiaries were families like the Rays. It’s easy to imagine that little Marjorie lives in the America King sought, that young James’ childhood isn’t a humiliating gauntlet that deforms his soul, that the human warehouses of the poor in which James lived most of his life aren’t so ubiquitous and hungry for captives. James Earl Ray killed the one man who had the power to make his life better.