In this photo taken at the Lorraine Motel in 1978, King's aides point in the direction from which they believe the assassin's bullet came from. Credit: Sun-Times print collection

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Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis to support a strike by black garbage workers. A march a week earlier had devolved into violence and a 17-year-old boy was killed; King had returned to organize a second march that he hoped would be more peaceful.

We all know what happened. James Earl Ray was arrested at Heathrow Airport in London in June 8. The following year, he pled guilty to King’s murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He briefly escaped in 1977 but was recaptured; he died of complications from hepatitis-C in 1998. Three days after his conviction, he recanted his confession and maintained his innocence for the rest of his life. Even the King family believed him. But he never received another trial.

Soon after Ray’s death, the U.S. Department of Justice began to investigate whether there had been a conspiracy to kill King. In their 1990 story “The Conspiracy to Kill Martin Luther King,” John Sergeant and John Edginton presented evidence that Ray had not acted alone. “The issue no longer seems to be whether government operatives were involved,” they wrote, “but how high up the chain of command the conspiracy ran.”

Sergeant and Edginton spoke to several people who had been involved in the case, including U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark and Ray himself. Their story was filled with details like this:

The authorities certainly couldn’t be accused of a lack of vigilance regarding King’s visit to Memphis. But only recently has the true nature of that vigilance begun to come out.

Retired Memphis police officer Sam Evans said in an interview last summer that a member of King’s personal entourage and an employee of the Lorraine were both in the pay of the police. Also, it was confirmed during the [House Select Committee on Assassinations] investigation that Marrell McCullough, one of the first to reach King’s fallen body—the man holding the towel around King’s head in the famous photograph taken from a neighboring balcony seconds after the shot was fired—was, though ostensibly a member of the radical black group the Invaders, an undercover agent of the Memphis police department (MPD).

In a fire station located across the street from the Lorraine Motel, two black police officers had set up a surveillance post and were monitoring King’s every move. But by the time of the shooting, one of the two—along with the two black fire fighters assigned to the station—had been transferred elsewhere.

The MPD’s intelligence unit had planted bugs and agents at all the striking sanitation workers’ strategy meetings as well as at Invaders meetings. A senior police officer told a journalist in the 70s that military intelligence and the U.S. Secret Service also had agents throughout Memphis.  

In the summer of 1990, the Justice Department released a 150-page report that rejected the notion that there had been a conspiracy. Still, Sergeant and Edginton made a compelling case.