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King and Ray: Two men on a collision course

Was there a conspiracy behind the murder of a Black leader?

Gregg Reese OW Contributor | 1/17/2020, midnight
It seemed like an open-and-shut case. The foremost social activist of..

“…the FBI picked Ray for the role as patsy based upon his personal characteristics that were required for the profile they had created: A vulnerable and malleable White man with only a nominal education, few marketable skills and a criminal past who could be portrayed as a Southern racist, a man who hated Blacks and wanted the recognition of being a famed assassin (though none of the above was true, other than his being an uneducated White man with a history of petty crimes).”

—Phillip F. Nelson, in an interview with Our Weekly.

It seemed like an open-and-shut case. The foremost social activist of the century gunned down by a lone bigot, a dogmatic extremist determined to halt the wheels of progress eroding the segregationist policies of the southern United States.

By 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had eclipsed the cycle of celebrity in his native country and transitioned into the pantheon of the world stage after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. As such, his life became infinitely more complicated as he was pulled in numerous directions by myriad factions within the civil rights movement, militant and moderate, who wanted his celebrity and political cache to help their individual endeavors in the grand campaign for equality across the nation.

In the city of Memphis, Tenn. the plight of the city's garbage collectors was especially dire. On top of low wages and substandard working conditions, hazardous safety conditions abounded. The deaths of two garbage collectors on Feb. 1, 1968 by a malfunctioning truck sparked a strike by 1300 sanitation workers, and local minister James M. Lawson prevailed on his old colleague Rev. King to intervene.

James Earl Ray, the man eventually sentenced for King's murder, was brought up in hardscrabble environments in Illinois and Missouri to a family embroiled in the pursuit of petty crime. Young James worked diligently to avoid this legacy of delinquency before joining the army. Like all recruits, he took basic rifle training, but received an early discharge for "ineptness and lack of adaptability."

During his brief (1946-48) enlistment however, he was stationed in West Germany where he served as a Military Policeman (MP). At this time, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the espionage service that helped win the war, was morphing into what is now the Central Intelligence Agency.

Years afterwards, Ray's brother, John Larry Ray, collaborated with historian Lyndon Barsten on the book “Truth At Last: The Untold Story behind James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” (2008). In it, they uncovered evidence that James had been subjected to narco-hypnotic experimentation in the fledgling technology of “brainwashing” or mind control. More specifically, this hapless soldier was administered two lumbar puncture procedures (or what would become known as “spinal taps”) in 1948. Spinal taps can be used to administer psychiatric drugs into the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

Shortly afterwards, in the commission of his duties as an MP, he was ordered to shoot (and subsequently cripple) a Black soldier named Washington, who was in the process of going AWOL. This episode haunted Ray for the rest of his life, according to Barsten.