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Associated Press

On This Day: King Assassin James Earl Ray Escapes from Prison

June 10, 2010 09:00 AM
by Jordan Termine
On June 10, 1977, James Earl Ray, confessed killer of Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from Brushy Mountain State Prison in Petros, Tenn. He was recaptured three days later.

Ray Escapes With Six Others

James Earl Ray was incarcerated 40 miles north of Knoxville in the maximum security Brushy Mountain State Prison, from which no inmate had ever escaped. He was serving a 99-year prison sentence for the murder of U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968.

Ray, who had managed to escape from a different prison a year before assassinating King, was one of seven inmates to escape as part of a carefully planned breakout that included several others. It began when two inmates staged a fight, distracting the guards enough to allow the seven to scale a 14-foot-wall using a primitive ladder made from plumbing materials.

When guards realized the fight was a distraction, they immediately sounded the escape alarm. Ironically, the alarm aided the prisoners’ getaway. The high volume of calls from curious neighbors flooded and crashed the phone system. Guards managed to shoot the last of the seven escapees, David Powell. Wounded and lying just beyond the prison walls, Powell reportedly exclaimed, “Ray got away!”

Authorities captured Ray in the Cumberland Mountains less than 55 hours later. Within two days of Ray’s recapture, all six other escapees were back in police custody.

Background: Martin Luther King’s Assassination

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in Memphis, Tenn., just outside his hotel room. Ray managed to escape from the scene and wasn't arrested until June 8, when he was caught at Heathrow Airport in London with a fake Canadian passport.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. Ray later recanted and said he had been set up; many people, including the King family and some prominent black civil rights leaders, believed that he was part of a larger conspiracy.

His escape rekindled public debate about the assassination. Ray’s attorney, Jack Kershaw, told ABC, “I think there is a strong possibility … that this is not an escape, but an abduction. The true culprit and his friends would be enormously worried about a forthcoming trial after which Ray might be acquitted and freed. Then the government would renew its efforts to find the true culprit.”

Several black leaders made similar comments. Jesse Jackson said, “Ray will be killed by those who helped get him out of jail.” Louis Stokes, chair of the U.S. House Committee on the King assassination, remarked, “We know there are people out there who would not want him to talk. My real concern is whether James Earl Ray was lured into this escape and, if so, whether for the purpose of killing him.”

Assassination Conspiracy Theories

Some King family members believe that King was a victim of a government conspiracy designed to end the major anti-poverty reforms he had planned. “The economic movement was why he was killed, frankly,” claims Martin Luther King III in a 1998 interview with Newsweek. “That was frightening to the powers that be.”

J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI kept King under tight surveillance, believing that he had ties to communists. In 1964, after King received the Nobel Peace Prize, the FBI sent him an anonymous package containing recordings of him speaking sexually to females and a threatening note concluding, “You are done.”

In 1999, the King family won a civil suit against Memphis restaurateur Loyd Jowers, a retired Memphis businessman who allegedly hired a policeman to kill King. Afterwards, Dexter King, son of the Rev. King, declared that the trial had revealed “most incredible coverup of the century.”

But some reject the conspiracy theory. King biographer David J. Garrow writes in Salon that the evidence in favor of a conspiracy “amounts to nothing more than fabricated stories told by people motivated by the expectation of Hollywood movie riches and, in some instances, actual up-front cash payments.”

One close friend of the King family told Garrow, “They’ve got to blame someone else more important [than Ray], no matter what the evidence.”

Biographies: James Earl Ray and Martin Luther King

James Early Ray
Before his assassination of King, James Earl Ray was a “drifter prone to inept holdups and burglaries” who “was intensely passionate in his hatred of blacks and especially of Dr. King,” writes The New York Times. He escaped from a Missouri prison in 1967 and remained free until after he killed King.

Though he would claim that he had been set up, his confession was upheld eight times. In 1979, two years after his famous escape, he tried to flee again, but was captured in the process. In 1981, he was attacked by at least three black inmates and stabbed repeatedly, though he would survive. He died in 1998, at the age of 70, from cirrhosis of the liver.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most iconic and influential leaders of the civil rights movement. Read the full findingDulcinea biography of King.

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