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Examining the other side of Black History with James Earl Ray

by on July 16, 2013


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Michael Arzate is the Summer Diversity Intern in the Research Services Division, Textual Records at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. He is currently a History undergraduate major at the University of California, Berkeley.

First, let me introduce myself. I’m an undergraduate student spending my summer as an intern at the National Archives. Why? I wanted to expose myself to the treasures of America’s historical records and to do research on the African American civil rights movement in the 1960s. Plus, I was curious to explore the kinds of careers a history major can enjoy. “What are you going to do with a degree in history?” became a tiresome question.

I soon found out that work here at the Archives is actually extremely rewarding. It seems that every day I come across a new record containing information about people and events that I had only read about in a textbook or a research paper. One such name appeared as I was browsing over Record Group 129 Records of the Bureau of Prisons. The Notorious Offenders (National Archives Identifier  580698) series immediately caught my attention (my 20-something year old self wanted to see the “cool” stuff first) and I began to delve into the cases of famous people that had served hard time in federal prisons. Familiar names were the first to be examined- Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Bayard Rustin, and Billie Holiday. But as I began searching for those who might be interesting to research relating to Black History, I thought that legendary civil rights leaders such as Rustin might be the only ones worth including. I soon realized, however, that not all African American history is heroic or uplifting. It’s important not only to study the works of great leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but also of those of who halted their progress and the motivations behind doing so. Thus, I chose to focus a bit more on the other side of Black History and research the man who was convicted of  King’s death: James Earl Ray.

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[FBI Most Wanted photo flyer 442-A April 19. 1968]

 I think it’s safe to say that most people have a one-sided view of Ray. After reading through his record however, I was fascinated to discover the many facets of a supposedly one-dimensional character. His story begins with humble beginnings growing up in a poor family in rural Illinois. During World War II, he served in the Army in Germany. After returning he committed numerous felonies (including armed robbery, forging money orders, and murder) all of which sent him to prison a total of three separate times in which he escaped twice, sparking an international man-hunt and a spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.

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[photo of the truck, showing how he escaped in a bread truck in 1967. Taken from The Kansas City Star January 19, 1969 page 3D]

After escaping prison the first time in 1967 he fled across the country both south and north of the border. Ray was known to have segregationist ties (it’s said that while living with a different name he even helped campaign for George Wallace in Los Angeles), possibly being evidence of his hatred towards African Americans and the motivation towards the alleged assassination.

If you do not  know the rest of the story, any search engine will do. Controversies and conspiracies theories shrouded the investigation over MLK’s assassination. After being arrested in 1969 by London authorities (yes, he made it all the way to the U.K.), Ray confessed to the crime but then famously denied his confession three days later, claiming that he was forced to do so by police officials. Ray was sentenced to a 99 year sentence, with another year added after his escape in 1977. Until his last day, James Earl Ray denied the crime, saying that it was part of a larger conspiracy involving contacts from Canada and even insinuating that the U.S. government had a role in it as well.

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[Taken from Washington Post pg. 1 August 17, 1978]

While the entire story behind the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. remains to this day unclear, a look into the other side of history reveals the complexity and depth of a story that is not so eagerly told. How plausible is his version of history? His prison escapes make me doubt, but this document recorded in 1977 gave another interesting glimpse into the mind of James Earl Ray. Of his three year sentence in 1955 for forgery it says, “Ray was eligible for parole on September 30, 1956, but on April 4th, 1956, signed a waiver saying ‘I do not wish to apply for a parole as I do not think it will do me any good’”.

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[memo relating to Ray's parole, June 22, 1977]


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