Flanked by his mother, Coretta Scott King, Dexter King told a press conference in his father's home town of Atlanta that the family would make a formal petition next week for a court trial of James Earl Ray, who is dying of liver disease in a Tennessee prison hospital. "It's now or never," Dexter King said. "Only a duly conducted trial can shed light on my father's assassination."
In many respects, the King case resembles the controversy which still surrounds the assassination of President Kennedy, that other national tragedy of the Sixties. As with Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, forensic evidence is overwhelming that Ray fired the single rifle shot which killed Dr King on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
But, exactly as with JFK, conspiracy theories rage. In part, these reflect a similar refusal to admit that a random act by one obscure individual acting alone could change history. But doubts of the official version of events are reinforced by the known obsession of the then director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J Edgar Hoover, with Dr King and the supposed threat he represented to US social stability. In short, was Ray given a helping hand from above?
After the murder on 4 April, as protest rioting swept the black ghettos of the US, Ray fled to Canada, and thence to Britain and Portugal, before returning to London. He was arrested on 8 June 1968 at Heathrow airport as he tried to board a flight to Brussels. To avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty and was given a 99-year jail sentence. But hardly had he been sentenced than Ray recanted his confession and demanded a proper trial.
Even though a congressional committee in 1979 found the "likelihood but no proof" of a conspiracy, Ray's request has seven times been turned down, and prosecutors insist that no new facts justify a reopening of the case. But his illness (he has acute liver cirrhosis and without a transplant is given less than a year to live) and the intervention of the King family may tip the scales.
Ray himself, now 68, insists that he did not commit the crime, and his lawyers claim technology developed since his 1969 conviction could show that his .30-calibre hunting rifle was not the murder weapon. But the biggest mystery is how Ray, a small-time burglar on the run at the time of the assassination, obtained the money, air tickets and four fake identities which helped him evade capture for two months.
"The FBI kept my father under closer surveillance than any man in history, even more than Al Capone. There were 5,000 men on him," Dexter King claims. "How was a man with only an eighth-grade education, who was an escapee from prison with very little money, able to get a passport and travel to three countries?"
A trial, he acknowledges, might not completely clear up the mystery, but it would give the family "peace of mind". The truth had to be established, and "we feel strongly this can only be done in a court of law".
Among the most common theories is that Ray was set up by the Mafia, acting on behalf of the FBI or the CIA, and that he handed his gun to a man who said he was part of a gun-running scheme. The aim of the alleged plot was to prevent Dr King leading a planned march on Washington that, the authorities feared, could spark a national black uprising. In fact, his assassination led to the worst race riots in the city's history.
Ray has frequently changed his story of his actions in the 24 hours up to the assassination. But it is known that he bought the rifle in March 1968, and had followed Dr King to at least two cities before he arrived in Memphis to rally striking refuse workers. He died on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, which has since been turned into America's first civil rights museum.
Yesterday Ray's family also supported a trial. "I'm sure the whole King family, like the whole Ray family and the rest of the American public, wants the truth to come out, once and for all," his brother Jerry Ray said.Reuse content