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Who Assassinated Martin Luther King?

Photo of Martin Luther King
The official story of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination has been contested by the King family.

On April 4th, 1968, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. It was one of a series of high-profile assassinations in the 1960s. While a conviction was made, there are still questions over who is truly responsible for the crime. Who killed Martin Luther King Jr., and is there any truth to the idea of a conspiracy?

Who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr.?

There are two sides to this story. On the one side, you have the official story where a lone gunman shot the civil rights activist from a window across the street, was arrested in London months later, and then imprisoned for 99 years.

On the other, you have the story of Loyd Jowers. He claimed responsibility through a mafia and government conspiracy and named a Memphis police officer as the one to pull the trigger.

Many believe in the conspiracy. The convicted gunman, James Earl Ray, pleaded his innocence long after his conviction and was believed by the King family. They then filed a case against Jowers and won. But, there is no clear-cut answer.

The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr Martin Luther King was staying at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. On the evening of April 4th, 1968, he was shot by a gunman from across the street. He was taken to the hospital for treatment, but his head and spinal cord injuries were too severe, and he died approximately an hour later. After the shot was fired, witnesses saw a man fleeing the scene from a boarding house opposite the hotel.

Lorraine Motel in Memphis
Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

The death of Martin Luther King sent shock waves through the Civil Rights Movement and the nation more generally. His death placed a new emphasis on his efforts and the campaign for equal rights, and he became a different kind of figurehead. After learning of his death, President Lyndon B Johnson called for a national day of mourning the following day, and flags flew at half-mast in respect.

Who Was Convicted for the Assassination?

At this point, it is important to differentiate between who was convicted for the crime rather than who the killer was, as there is still some dispute over who actually did it. The man charged was James Earl Ray. At the time, he was identified as the man fleeing the scene and was apprehended two months later on June 8th at Heathrow Airport, London.

Ray had been staying in a room in the boarding house, and his prints were later found on a rifle and binoculars dumped nearby. Allegedly, he had purchased the rifle just six days before under an alias. He did confess to avoid the possibility of the death penalty but later retracted this confession.

James Earl Ray claimed he did not “personally shoot King” but may have been responsible without his knowledge. This is where the idea of a conspiracy grew. It is possible that he was not the man to obtain the gun and that the prints were planted on the evidence. It is also possible he was targeted because he was boarding in that house. 

The Conspiracy Theory About Martin Luther King’s Death

The prospect of a deeper conspiracy in the Martin Luther King assassination is one believed by his peers due to circumstances at the time. Dr King was not a popular man in many circles and was highly influential in the Civil Rights Movement. This made him a target for death threats, and he had survived a previous stabbing in 1958. King foretold his death, saying he would end up like John F Kennedy following the president’s assassination.

Dr. Martin Luther King
Dr. King was a powerful figure in the Civil Rights Movement.

Furthermore, there had been concerns about new members of the movement with close ties to the government. Reverend Jesse James was close to Dr King at the time and would later say he believed the government might have been involved in some way, stating, “I will never believe that James Earl Ray had the motive.” 

The Case Against Loyd Jowers

The most interesting case around this alternative theory is that of Loyd Jowers. Jowers came out with a claim in 1993 that James Earl Ray was merely a scapegoat and that he was hired to carry out the killing. He claimed that he was responsible and had worked with the government and mafia to set up the assassination.

Photograph of President John F. Kennedy
Dr. King eerily predicted that he would share a similar fate to JFK.

This claim gained a lot of attention from the press and the King family, who weren’t convinced by the idea that Ray was responsible. While all of this was going on, James Earl Ray was still serving his 99-year sentence in Tennessee State Penitentiary. King’s son visited him to ask for the truth and was told that Ray had not done it.

Jowers would go on to name a member of the Memphis Police Department as the actual shooter. If Jowers’ claims are true, Ray was incarcerated despite being innocent, and the evidence against him was false. Sadly, Ray had died the year before the trial, meaning that even if this was a moment of vindication, he wasn’t alive to see it.

Coretta Scott King et al. vs. Loyd Jowers et al.

This culminated in the case of Coretta Scott King et al. vs. Loyd Jowers et al. in 1999. This case was tried in Tennessee as a civil case claiming Jowers was responsible for the wrongful death of Martin Luther King Jr. The King family believed the claim, as did the jury, finding Jowers and the unknown conspirators guilty. The family received just $100 in compensation to deliberately show that the case had never been about financial retribution.

Who Killed Martin Luther King Jr.?

The case is interesting because we may never know for certain who was telling the truth. James Earl Ray will go down in history as the man who pulled the trigger and served time for the Martin Luther King assassination. It is also possible that Jowers wasn’t telling the truth, though.

But, Ray maintained his plea of innocence, the his family and friends of King believed there was more to it. Whoever the shooter was, their actions won’t be forgotten. 


Civil Rights March
Civil Rights March in March 1963 at Lincoln Memorial. Attended by Martin Luther King Jr.

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