Indeed we did, because in the early 1970’s, Marcus Wayne Chenault travelled down to Atlanta, Georgia, walked into the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and shot Martin Luther King’s mother to death. He had a list of names in his pocket that included Aretha Franklin. What his motivation in doing this could have been, I have no idea. And Chenault took his secret to the grave. He died in prison. I’m rather glad about that, but I fear that some day some idiot conspiracy theorist will accuse me of having been part of a conspiracy against Ms. King. After all, I did work in the same restaurant with the assassin, didn’t I?
The lesson I draw from this is that sometimes there really are lone nuts who do amazingly stupid and violent things. A great many people are convinced that James Earle Ray was part of a conspiracy to kill Dr. Martin Luther King. This is a subject with which I have some familiarity because my Criminal Law Professor at Notre Dame, G. Robert Blakely, was Chief Counsel to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. He interviewed Ray and tripped him up repeatedly in the story Ray was trying to sell. If I were going to rub somebody out, I certainly would not hire someone like Ray as a triggerman. Of Ray’s 70 years on this earth, 38 of them (over half) were spent in prison. He got two years for armed robbery in Chicago, four years at Leavenworth for a Post Office robbery, and 20 years at the Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery. He managed to escape after seven years of the 20-year sentence by hiding in an enormous bread container. Several months after King’s assassination, he was arrested in London’s Heathrow Airport while trying to make his way to Rhodesia.
I once saw a documentary on the murder site in Memphis. The producers measured the distance from the room Ray was staying in to the balcony of the hotel where Martin Luther King died. The distance was only 72 yards. That would be an impossible shot with a pistol, but for anyone with even the slightest skill with a rifle, it would be difficult to miss at that range. And in 1977 and again in 1979 Ray demonstrated that he had not lost any of his talents as an escape artist. In 1977, Ray and six other inmates managed to break out of the Tennessee maximum-security facility. At the time, several members of the civil rights establishment claimed that this was proof of a huge conspiracy, and that someone was going to eliminate Ray to keep him from talking. That prediction turned out not to be accurate. Ray and all his accomplices were recaptured within 72 hours. After another escape and recapture in 1979, Ray spent the rest of his life in Brushy Mountain, dying of complications related to hepatitis after serving 29 years of a 99-year sentence.
I recently learned that for his part in the escape, Tennessee added one more year to his prison sentence. I think someone at that Tennessee penitentiary has an excellent sense of humor.
Aside from being an inept armed robber and a fairly talented escape artist, Ray was also good at spinning yarns for people unwary enough to listen to him. Shortly before he died, Ray met with one of Martin Luther King’s sons, who told him that he was not the shooter. Dexter King later said that he was convinced that Ray was not guilty of murdering his father. Speaking to someone who has examined the record closely, I can only imagine that Ray had a very good chuckle when he got back to his cell, seeing that while he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison, at least he had totally fooled one of his victim’s sons. One of the reasons people want to believe that there was a huge government conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King Jr. is that they don’t want to accept that such an historic figure could be killed by as evil a non-entity as James Earle Ray. Or, for that matter, as Marcus Wayne Chenault.