PHILIP MARTIN: It doesn't take a monster

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life . . . But I'm not concerned about that now.

-- Martin Luther King Jr.

April 3, 1968

If you stand in the bathroom where James Earl Ray stood and look across Mulberry Street to the Lorraine Motel, you will realize it was not so hard. Not like what Oswald did in Dallas--not a difficult triplet of lead notes. Only 283 feet. Anyone with a seven-power Redfield scope and basic competence could do it.

You don't have to be special to make history; you just have to have a leveling tool. You just have to have whatever it takes to pull a trigger. It took about six pounds of pressure to fire the .30-06 Remington Gamemaster 760 that Ray--who signed his name as Harvey Lowmeyer--bought in Birmingham, Ala., on March 30, 1968.

Ray used another name--Eric Starvo Galt--when he checked in to a motel near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 22. Martin Luther King Jr. was also in Selma on that day. He canceled a public appearance at the last minute. But all Galt had on him was a handgun; it might have been difficult to get close enough. It would have been harder to get away.

You don't have to be brave or strong to blow a hole in the world. There doesn't have to be some grand conspiracy. You just have to position yourself, to stalk and lurk. Mark David Chapman got an autograph from John Lennon hours before he shot him. Ray was just as deranged in his way. He expected George Wallace, for whose campaign he'd worked in California, to win the presidency. He expected Wallace to pardon him for King's murder.

That's one story anyway. Ray was naive, but not stupid. He escaped from the maximum security Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967, probably by hiding in the false bottom of a 4-foot by 3-foot by 3-foot box loaded with fresh bread that was transferred out of state by truck from the prison bakery. He jumped off the truck, lived free and traveled undetected for more than a year, until he became the prime suspect in the King assassination.

He probably had help. He might have been part of a wide-ranging conspiracy. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI didn't warn King when they learned of plots on his life in 1963; in 1964 the bureau was behind the infamous note that accompanied a package of audio recordings of King engaged in an extramartial affair. "Lend your sexually psychotic ear to the enclosure," the note read, as it urged King to commit suicide "before [his] filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation."

(For a concise take on the FBI's campaign against King, see Earl Ofari Hutchinson's recently published 50 Years Later: Why the Murder of Dr. King Still Hurts.)

I'm not saying Ray acted alone. I'm saying he could have. You don't have to be anybody to hate. You only have to overcome any vestigial empathy you might have, to imagine that what you're sighting down is something more or less than a human being. Make it in your mind a target or a symbol, close your heart, and squeeze.

You can do that, can't you? I think I could. I could talk myself into believing in some cause larger and more important than the life of a man, than the lives of thousands or even millions.

Years ago I spent a lot of time thinking about the petty criminal James Earl Ray. I don't believe the stories he told, after he confessed and recanted, about mysterious Raoul. I disagree with Dexter Scott King, the martyr's second son, who in 1997 shook Ray's hand and told him the King family believed in "his innocence." I think Ray fired a shot from the window of the communal bathroom in Bessie Brewer's boarding house, that it traveled 283 feet and ripped through the jaw and the throat of Dexter's father, severing his necktie and lodging in his shoulder.

I think Ray ran outside and dumped a bundle that included a pair of binoculars he bought a few hours earlier and the rifle he'd bought in Alabama on the sidewalk in front of Canipe's Amusement Company on South Main Street. I think he got in his springtime yellow 1966 Ford Mustang and drove to Atlanta. I think the Memphis Police Department probably could have responded better.

I think Ray went on to Canada, Portugal and England, where he was arrested at Heathrow Airport. I believe he planned to flee to what was then called Rhodesia because he thought in his pill-addled, criminally ignorant way that he could find asylum there until Wallace was elected.

Ray confessed and copped a guilty plea because he wanted to escape the death penalty. He was basically a coward and a crook. I've never seen compelling evidence that anyone had knowledge of Ray's plan. I don't think there is much doubt he pulled the trigger.

But I don't think he acted alone.

People like James Earl Ray are symptomatic of our society; they are part of the human condition. They are thwarted and vain individuals who might not be mad in any clinical or legal sense but nevertheless aren't entirely in control of their own actions. They are susceptible to suggestion and grand delusions. You will find them concentrated in prisons and jails, but you'll occasionally run into them on social media or even in your family. Some of my uncles admired George Wallace.

The King assassination was what they used to call a "historical inevitability"--but it wasn't something that had to happen. Had Ray had a last-minute pang of conscience or if his hands had been shaky, King might be alive. The Lorraine Motel would probably have been demolished long ago. His legacy would be different. It is hard to imagine him mattering as much as a living agent--as an extraordinary though flawed human being--than as a martyr.

We have a need to believe Ray was more than an ordinary racist with a rifle. We don't want to think about the fragility of our position, how slight our purchase is on our ideals and civilization. But it doesn't take a monster to deflect history.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

Editorial on 04/03/2018

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