Aired Monday May 3rd, 2010 at 8:00 pm on KUED HD Ch. 7.1
A riveting narrative of an assassin and his victim, "Road to Memphis" tells the story of the forces in American society that drove two men to their violent and tragic collision on April 4, 1968. Following the paths of James Earl Ray and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the film is both an incisive portrait of an America on-edge and a tale of how one individual can forever alter the course of history. KUED fpresents American Experience "Road to Memphis" Monday, May 3 at 8:00 p.m.
Airing in conjunction with the publication of Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides, "Road to Memphis" is told through eyewitness testimony from King's inner circle and the officials involved in Ray's capture and prosecution following an intense two-month international manhunt. The first film to explore the mind of the elusive assassin, "Road to Memphis" is produced and directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Stephen Ives.
When James Earl Ray was arrested in July 1969, he was the most wanted suspect in the world. Who was this "four-time loser" who assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, the Nobel Prize-winning, charismatic leader of the civil rights movement? How did Ray manage to escape and elude authorities for months? What motivated him to kill? The film reveals the mysterious and misunderstood loner who remains an enigma even today.
Born into a troubled family, scarred by violence, crime and extreme poverty, Ray eked out a living by holding up taxi drivers, grocery stores and office buildings. Eventually he was convicted for armed robbery. Many white prisoners, including Ray, were racist, and word circulated that a bounty had been placed on Martin Luther King, one of the most revered and hated men in America. During the seven years he spent in prison, Ray, a news junkie, followed King's growing popularity and power.
Early one morning while working in the prison bakery Ray hid under a bread cart that was loaded onto a delivery truck. Once the truck was out of the prison yard and had come to its first stop, Ray jumped out. Drifting, he made his way to Chicago where he joined his brothers and began scheming for ways to make money, from pornography to kidnapping.
During this time King had risen to the height of his popularity, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and rallying enormous crowds at his speeches. "The country was going through this spasm of democracy," says Gerald Posner. "People were getting civil rights acts passed and they were marching on Washington. Many whites viewed this as a threat to the America they knew."
"Martin Luther King saw non-violence and politics as drama," says Harris Wofford, Assistant to President John F. Kennedy. "You first stir a crisis in the minds of the people you are trying to reach. When you peacefully turn the other cheek you're using virtue against them. You know that you're going to stir hatred, but King thought there had to be times when you almost deliberately invite death."
Meanwhile Ray drifted, from Chicago to Canada to Birmingham to Mexico to Los Angeles. It was in Los Angeles that he became captivated by former Alabama governor George Wallace's run for the presidency. A reaction against the growing civil rights movement, Wallace's campaign appealed to poor, white Southerners.
"In those days, white men had pride in their race because frequently that's the only thing they could have pride in," says Arthur Hanes, "The Rays may have had absolutely nothing, but in those days and times, at least they could say they were white."
As 1967 drew to a close, Dr. King emphasized his belief that for any real change to occur, social transformation had to happen -- a controversial position which many saw as socialism and a redistribution of wealth. Riots had devastated several major cities, and King believed they were the result of poverty. He began to organize the "Poor People's Campaign," that would demand that the government do something about poverty.
King's call to Washington further inflamed his enemies, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had long despised King, publicly calling him "a liar." On March 16, 1968, King gave a speech in Los Angeles, only a few miles from where Ray was staying. The next day, Ray moved to Atlanta, King's hometown.
That same month, thousands of Memphis sanitation workers, almost exclusively African-American, rallied for better pay and union recognition after two garbage workers were killed in a malfunctioning garbage truck. Their plight touched King, who decided to join them, despite the protests of his staff who felt that the Memphis strike was a distraction from their larger mission.
"What was happening in Memphis really lured him in. It was the perfect expression of what he was trying to do in Washington," says author Hampton Sides. "King realized that instead of taking a right turn to Washington, he first had to take a left turn to Memphis."
The march in Memphis turned violent. Quickly whisked away to avoid being hurt, King was criticized for leaving the march. He vowed to return to Memphis even though his colleagues advised against it. "The question is not if I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me," said King. "The question is, if I do not stop to help this sanitation worker, what will happen to them?"
A date was announced for King's return to Memphis, allowing Ray to spring into action. He went to Birmingham and, under an assumed name, bought a 'thirty-aught-six' Remington rifle with a scope. His path was set.
On April 3, King and his colleagues, including Dorothy Cotton, Andrew Young, and Benjamin Hooks, returned to Memphis, aware of the increasing tensions but determined to show solidarity with the sanitation workers. Ray, too, went to Memphis, checking into the New Rebel motel.
On the night of April 3, during a violent storm, King spoke from his heart to the crowd at the Mason Temple, giving one of the most powerful and memorable speeches of his life. The next day, Ray found a rooming house near the Lorraine Motel, identified as King's lodging by the Memphis media. On the evening of April 4, as King and his aides prepared to go to dinner, Ray, an expert marksman, shot and killed King as he stood on the motel balcony.
"To some extent Dr. King has been a buffer for the last few years between the white community and the black community," said Jesse Jackson. "The white people do not know it, but the white people's best friend is dead."
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shook the country to the core, setting off deadly riots from coast to coast, and triggering the largest, costliest manhunt in American history to date. Ray's identity remained unknown for more than two weeks. He escaped to Canada and planned to travel to Rhodesia, where he expected to be hailed a hero.
Soon FBI agents matched fingerprints found on the gun to an escaped felon named James Earl Ray. Nearly two months after the fingerprinting, Ray was spotted and arrested in London. On March 10, 1969, Ray pled guilty to killing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Three days later, he recanted his plea and spent the rest of his life declaring his innocence. He died behind bars in April 1998, nearly thirty years to the day after the murder.
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