Who Killed Dr. King?

March 29, 1998|By EARL CALDWELL

On that evening in Memphis nearly 30 years ago, as twilight gathered over the string of faded pastel-colored buildings that made up the Lorraine Motel, I was one of those who was there at the moment the shot was fired that felled Martin Luther King Jr., snuffing out his life and launching a controversy that rages yet today.

Many questions remain unanswered. Was it a conspiracy? What was the motive? Who ordered the killing? And, most of all, who was the assassin?

The official story says that the killer was the escaped convict James Earl Ray and that he was acting alone. There was never a trial. After his arrest, Ray pleaded guilty when he was brought into a Memphis courtroom. But just days after he was given a 99-year prison sentence, Ray recanted. He portrayed himself as a patsy; he said another man pulled the trigger. And now, with Ray 70 years old, frail and ill with terminal liver disease, his lawyers are pressing for the trial that was never held. Meanwhile, on Friday, Memphis prosecutors said a new investigation found no evidence that anyone other than Ray had killed King.

So much of the time, the mind plays tricks. As the years pass, pictures fade. But for me, so much of what happened that night nearly three decades ago, still sits there in the front of my mind as though waiting to be understood.

I had spent the afternoon waiting to interview King, as I had done in his room the afternoon before. On this day though, it broke the other way. King had no time for an interview; his lawyers and strategists had spent a long day downtown in a courtroom, fighting an injunction that was issued to prevent him from leading a march on behalf of striking garbage collectors. King stayed in his room conferring by phone with the lawyers and taking care of other matters. He even had had lunch sent in, and he and his friend and partner, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy ate in the room.

After the proceedings at the courthouse ended, the lawyers and strategists returned to the Lorraine and met with King. They didn't have much time; dinner was being prepared for them at the home of the Rev. Billy Kyles, a Memphis minister. And later, there would be a rally to build support for the garbage collectors and for the march scheduled for Saturday.

It was nearing 6 o'clock on Thursday, April 4. King's room, No. 306, was on the balcony level of the motel. In the parking lot below, one by one, King's closest aides began to gather. They waited for "Doc" as they affectionately called him. None of them would leave until he was ready, and then they would go to dinner together. Waiting now were Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, James Bevel, Hosea Williams and James Orange. King jokingly called them his "wild horses," because he said they had such strong personalities. With them was the lawyer Chauncey Eskridge, the musician Ben Branch and a few others.

And they were there huddled together when the door to Room 306 opened.

It was a few minutes before 6 p.m. Kyles stepped out, then Martin. Abernathy, not quite ready, lingered behind. King went to the railing at the balcony to greet those who waited below. Maybe because of the tension from the day, the mood turned playful. King joked with Jesse. And Jesse introduced Branch, a musician from Chicago, who had come to Memphis to perform that night at a rally.

"Oh, I know Ben," said Martin.

King had a request. He said he wanted Branch at the rally later to play "Precious Lord," a song that was a favorite.

Witnesses to murder

As King leaned on the balcony and the banter continued, they all had their eyes glued on him. And from somewhere across Mulberry Street, just beyond the motel grounds, an assassin was lying in wait, prepared to strike. Those who were the closest to King would see the killing as no others would see it. They actually witnessed the instant the bullet hit King, exploding with such force that it ripped a hole larger than a fist in his neck and jaw, hurling him onto his back, leaving him virtually dead on the balcony.

In the horror of the moment, those who watched stood frozen. Then, instinctively they jumped down, then back up and down again. And it continued that way.

For me, it was different. When the shot rang out, I was inside my room, No. 214, on the ground floor of the motel. The door was open; I had been pacing about inside trying to get a telephone line to get my story to New York in time to make a deadline. I did not see the bullet strike King. When the gunshot echoed through the motel yard, I did not know that an assassin had struck. But in two, perhaps three strides, I was in the doorway, looking to learn what had happened.

What was it, I wondered? Had a bomb exploded?

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