When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 54 years ago, an escaped convict named James Earl Ray was named as the lone gunman who had shot him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Ray pled guilty and spent the rest of his life in prison, and America was content with that – for a while. But rumors had been swirling, gaining ground, that this whole ordeal was too easily resolved and there may be more to this story than anyone thinks. William Klaber, author, researcher, and podcaster, is digging deeper into the conspiracies around King’s murder in “The MLK Tapes.”
Klaber is no stranger to conspiracies and assassinations
He is also the co-host of the podcast “The RFK Tapes,” and has been investigating the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, also in 1968, for over three decades. “The MLK Tapes” is a similar project, and its first two episodes were released on January 10th with subsequent episodes being released on Mondays. Both episodes are 50 minutes long.
A law student at the time that King was killed, during the year that Ray was on the run, Klaber and the American public had time to ponder their own suspects in the case. Rumors of conspiracy are alive and well to this day, and Klaber is not alone in this belief. King’s own family believes that Ray was a scapegoat. No matter what you believe, “The MLK Tapes” is digging in to see if they can find the truth. With cardboard boxes filled with rare recorded eyewitness testimonies and new interviews with people at the Lorraine Motel, Klaber sets off to reveal the plot to kill the King.
Memphis in ’68
When he arrived in Memphis in in April of ’68, Martin Luther King Jr. knew that he was putting his life on the line. His plane into Memphis had been delayed due to a bomb scare, and death threats against the minister had become nearly a daily occurence. He was in Tennessee to support striking Black city sanitation workers who were being paid significantly lower wages than their white counterparts. The deaths of two workers in February of that same year in a garbage-compacting truck turned tensions between workers and the company into an all out strike.
King gave his final speech in Memphis, his famous “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech. In hindsight, Klaber says, certain parts of the speech were almost ominous, with him saying he would like to live a long life and may not make it to the promised land with his supporters. Then, at 6 PM on April 4th, King was shot while leaving his room, on his way to celebrate a new plan for a non-violent march through the streets of the Tennessee city.
Suspect or scapegoat?
For a year after King’s death, Ray was on the run, caught finally in London’s Heathrow Airport. Ray zealously claimed his innocence, which notorious criminal defense attorney Percy Foreman approved of, claiming Ray’s trial would be an easy win. But Foreman changed his tune for some reason, telling Ray that a not guilty plea would ensure he would not face the death penalty, to which Ray complied, says “The MLK Tapes.”
But just days after that, Ray petitioned to change his plea to not guilty. Typically these petitions are granted and the judge presiding over the case, Judge W. Preston Battle, was expected to accept it. But the day Battle was to grant Ray’s not guilty plea and send this case to jury trial, Battle was found slumped over his desk, dead of a heart attack. James Earl Ray was escorted to prison without a trial.
In this first episode, Klaber interviews William F. Pepper, lawyer, author, and outspoken believer that Ray did not kill King, along with other beliefs involving Robert F Kennedy’s assassination. Whether or not you think this is just a wild theory that isn’t true, or that the whole story may still still out there, “The MLK Tapes” is a fascinating dive into King’s final days and the three-decades-late trial surrounding his assassination. Listen to it this upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and be sure to check back on Mondays for new episodes.