Martin Luther King Jr. is shot to death at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. A single shot fired by James Earl Ray from over 200 feet away at a nearby motel struck King in the neck. He died an hour later at St. Joseph’s Hospital. The death of America’s leading civil rights advocate sparked a wave of rioting in the black communities of several cities around the country.
Ray, who had escaped from a Missouri prison almost a year earlier, had used the aliases Eric Galt and John Willard to register in several motels in the Memphis area. He fired a Remington rifle from a bathroom window that looked out onto the hotel balcony where King was standing.
Ray fled to Canada, where he stayed for a month. Meanwhile, the FBI placed him on the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List. After buying a passport under the name Sneyd, Ray traveled to England on May 6. Within a week of arriving in London, he traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, for five days. Back in London, Ray moved from hotel to hotel until authorities finally caught up with him on June 8 at Heathrow Airport.
Ray was a career criminal who was in and out of prison for several small-time robberies. Since he had no known record of political hatred, many suspect that Ray was paid to assassinate King. One factor that has fueled this speculation is that Ray clearly had significant resources during the time between the assassination and his capture.
In any event, Ray pleaded guilty before his scheduled trial began in March 1969 and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Ray recanted his confession a few months later and insisted on his innocence for years. However, his efforts to secure a new trial were futile, despite the support of members of the King family who were eager to determine if others were involved. Ray died on April 23, 1998.