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CNN: SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT
Eyewitness To Murder: The King Assassination
Aired April 3, 2010 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the shot rang out -- kapow!
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have (INAUDIBLE) King has been shot at the Lorraine.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) the Lorraine area, a report of a shooting.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE), we have information that the shot came from a brick building directly west.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the subject ran south on Main Street.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a young, white male, well-dressed, possibly in a late model white Mustang. He went north on Main Street at 6:10.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, HOST: I'm Soledad O'Brien at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Forty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot down -- murdered right here on this balcony where I'm standing. The greatest civil rights leader in our nation's history killed before his dreams could be realized. The alleged assassin a small time criminal on the run.
Yet to this day, questions still linger and fester. And even some of Dr. King's closest aides believe the full story has yet to be told.
We will try.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): He was an American martyr.
O'BRIEN: A man who broke through the barriers of segregation with the philosophy of nonviolence.
O'BRIEN: Only to be shot down by a hidden gunman before his time.
ANDREW YOUNG: We had to change the world.
O'BRIEN: Forty years later, I walked to the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with his long-time friend and aide, Andrew Young.
(on camera): Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, I'm free at last.
Do you think that's the appropriate thing to put there?
YOUNG: For him, yes.
(voice-over): From his first days in the civil rights movement, Dr. King lived under the shadow of death -- his house bombed in the Montgomery bus boycott, followers killed in Birmingham and Selma. He was stabbed once in Harlem at a book signing.
YOUNG: When they removed the knife blades, they left a scar in his chest shaped like a cross.
O'BRIEN: A cross he saw in the mirror each day when he got up.
YOUNG: And he said every morning when I brush my teeth, I know this day might be my last. He said, so I'm ready for whatever comes any day of my life.
O'BRIEN: He joked about death with his inner circle.
YOUNG: He'd always say they're going to be shooting at me, but one of you guys is going to be jumping in front of the camera to take the bullet for me. And he said, I'll appreciate it and then I'll preach the best funeral you ever heard or anybody ever heard. And then he's start preaching your funeral. He'd never let us get nervous about it and I don't think he was nervous about it.
O'BRIEN (on camera): But it was there. It was very real.
YOUNG: Well, it was there particularly from the moment John Kennedy was killed. He just assumed that inevitably, if they could not protect the president, there's no way we could be protected.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): This photo was taken in 1966 on an earlier visit to Memphis. At King's side, that's Officer Redditt. On that visit, King stayed in his usual room off the balcony at the Lorraine Motel.
ED REDDITT: We put our bodies around him coming out of that room at the Lorraine. And we walked him down those steps with our bodies to make sure that he was covered, because it is dangerous. If you look at that (INAUDIBLE) on the balcony, there are so many areas you can see that's visible if I wanted to get you.
O'BRIEN: Redditt approached King at breakfast at the Lorraine to tell him it was dangerous.
REDDITT: Why you want to stay up here, because I'd just like to know. He's just laugh, oh, I go (INAUDIBLE). I said OK.
O'BRIEN: That was two years before Dr. King's death. By then, most of his civil rights victories were already behind him. His non- violent protests brought out the worst in white America -- police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham in 1963; Alabama state troopers beating back protestors on the bridge in Selma in 1965. And their violence would strike a flint on the nation's conscience.
LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: And we shall overcome.
O'BRIEN: President Lyndon Johnson pushed through landmark civil rights bills to open up public accommodations, to ensure access to voting rights and signed the laws as Dr. King stood over his shoulder. By the late 1960s, Andrew Young says King had become exhausted.
YOUNG: Were pretty well worn out. I mean he had been going from '55 to '67 without a letup.
O'BRIEN (on camera): There was a rumor that Dr. King was planning a sabbatical, maybe in India, maybe in Africa.
Was that true?
YOUNG: He was thinking about it. That was his -- that was his dream. It wasn't India or Africa, it was really Riverside Church.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): The prestigious Riverside Church in New York was looking for a pastor.
YOUNG: He said that was my ideal. That's what I wanted to be when I grew up.
KING: I speak out against this war
O'BRIEN: But that never happened. Instead, this speech at Riverside would become King's moral watershed over Vietnam. By 1966, the U.S. was mired in a war it could not win and blacks were the losers. Measured as a percentage of adult males, blacks were dying in Vietnam at a rate twice as high as whites.
KING: In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war. YOUNG: Everybody attacked him.
O'BRIEN (on camera): What was President Johnson's reaction after the Riverside speech?
YOUNG: Well, after the Riverside speech, I don't think we talked to him anymore.
O'BRIEN: He was angry?
O'BRIEN (voice-over): On that day, April the 4th, 1967, as King spoke at Riverside, he would have exactly one year left to live. Three weeks later, while King was an leading anti-war protest in Massachusetts, a thousand miles away in Missouri, a small time criminal named James Earl Ray would escape from prison and start on the course that would bring both men to Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Ahead, a life spent outside the law.
JERRY RAY: They don't catch him on the other crimes, you know. So he done a lot of things he got away with.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
O'BRIEN (voice-over): As an armed robber, James Earl Ray was fearless.
JERRY RAY: I moved here in May.
O'BRIEN: His younger brother Jerry says another crook told him this.
JERRY RAY: They said I've never -- I've never been with nobody that had as bold as he is. You know, he just walked in and put that gun on somebody and just like it's an everyday thing, you know?
And he said, he don't no fear or nothing.
O'BRIEN: Ray was born in Alton, Illinois and grew up dirt poor along the Mississippi River in Mark Twain country.
JERRY RAY: Everybody just called him Jimmy. And nobody called him James. That came out when King got killed, they started calling him James Earl Ray. And we just all called him Jimmy.
O'BRIEN: By his mid-20s, Ray was a two bit gunman. This is Ray on a hospital table, shot by a Chicago cop after the botched robbery of a taxi driver in 1952. Ray went to prison for two years. Then three more years in federal prison at Leavenworth for stealing post office money orders. Ray turned down a transfer to an honor farm. Prison records say he did so because he didn't want to live in an integrated honor dorm.
In 1959, caught after a grocery holdup in St. Louis, Ray was declared a habitual criminal and sent to the Missouri state prison for 20 years.
(on camera): You have a guy, he wasn't a good criminal, he wasn't the sharpest tech.
JERRY RAY: He's smart. He's plenty smart, intelligent.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Smart enough, Jerry said, not to get caught most of the time.
JERRY RAY: They don't catch him on the other crimes, you know. And so he -- he done a lot of things he got away with.
O'BRIEN: Almost eight years later, in 1967, James Earl Ray escaped from prison by smuggling himself out in a bread truck. He headed for Chicago, taking a job as a dishwasher at the Indian Trail Restaurant. Then, on a summer afternoon downstate in Alton, Illinois, a bank robbery. John Light was the chief of detectives.
JOHN LIGHT: And the witnesses said two people came in, masks like ladies' stockings pulled over their head and one was at the front door with a shotgun. The other, leaner individual went over the counters. This individual went from cage to cage and scooped up about 30 grand total.
O'BRIEN: Most of the money was in $20 bills -- an important fact, as we'll soon hear. The gunmen got away. But near the cemetery where Ray's mother was buried...
LIGHT: We found the shotgun partially burned and the bib overalls with a stocking mask partially burned here.
O'BRIEN: So who robbed the bank?
LIGHT: I think James Earl Ray did.
O'BRIEN: The very next day, Ray bought a used car and headed for Canada. Suddenly, he had enough money to buy a tailor-made suit and take a week's vacation at a resort. But he returned to his cheap room along the Montreal waterfront, trying to find a way to ship out to white ruled areas of Africa.
Ray's own words from 40 years ago.
JAMES EARL RAY: My reason for frequenting the waterfront was to see if I could get some drunken seaman's papers or get a job on a ship.
O'BRIEN: Ray put his account of his travels down in writing for the late author William Bradford Huie, who would provide the money for his legal fees.
WILLIAM BRADFORD HUIE: I thought that the only way to find out all that Ray knew was to make some sort of deal with him.
O'BRIEN: In August 1967, at the Neptune Tavern in Montreal, Ray said he met a mysterious man he knew only as Raul -- the man Ray would blame for everything that followed.
JAMES EARL RAY: I think the first time I contacted Raul was about the second time I frequented the bar with the pilot wheels in the window. And he started the conversation. Altogether, I would say I talked to him about seven or eight times.
O'BRIEN: As Ray told it, Raul paid him to smuggle something -- he never new what -- across the border at Detroit.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One hundred square blocks are now under siege.
O'BRIEN: He came back into the country only a few weeks after Detroit erupted in a firestorm of rioting -- at least 40 killed after a black confrontation with white police -- America's second deadly urban riot in the summer of '67.
Ray drove on to Chicago for a reunion with his brother Jerry.
JERRY RAY: And that's when he told me, he said from now on I'll be known as Eric S. Galt.
O'BRIEN: Eric Galt. Ray never told him why or how he got the name. Instead, the fugitive who had fled the country only a month earlier rode a train south to a still largely segregated Alabama.
In Birmingham, Ray answered a newspaper ad and bought a car much like this.
JAMES EARL RAY: The car I finally bought, a 1966 Mustang, had about 18,000 miles on it and was in good condition. It cost $1,995. The only thing I didn't like was the color. It was white.
O'BRIEN: In this FBI interview, the seller said Ray paid him in cash -- mostly 20s.
JERRY RAY: If he paid that guy $2,000 in 20s, that would be a lot of the money.
LIGHT: There's another dot connected to the bank of Alton.
O'BRIEN: Detective John Light thinks Ray's money came from the robbery. If so, enough to keep Ray on the run for another year.
LIGHT: Thirty thousand dollars back in 1967 was a lot of money.
O'BRIEN: But James Earl Ray claimed the money came from the mysterious Raul -- never a last name.
JERRY RAY: He just called him that name Raul. That's the only name he ever called him.
O'BRIEN: Ray got an Alabama driver's license under his alias, Eric Starvo Galt. He registered the Mustang under the same name. With this new license plate and his new identity, Ray left for Mexico.
This is James Earl Ray that fall in Puerto Vallarta, where, by his own account, he spent much of his time with a prostitute. By mid- November, Ray, on the right, had moved on to Los Angeles and settled into a low rent hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. He took dancing lessons and bartending lessons. But perhaps more significantly he did this.
JAMES EARL RAY: I had plastic surgery on my nose. It had been mashed to the left. After I got to the hotel, I moved the bandage to the right to change my appearance more.
O'BRIEN: Ray underwent that plastic surgery on March 5th -- only 30 days before Martin Luther King, Jr. would die.
ARTHUR HAINES, JR: I have been retained by this man.
O'BRIEN: Arthur Hanes, Jr. , on the left, and his father, would become Ray's first lawyers.
HAINES: When he left the plastic surgeon, he took his hand and undid the surgery, pushing it to the right, thinking if he ever got arrested, he would use the plastic surgeon's photographs to show that it was not he who had been arrested.
O'BRIEN: Two weeks later, Dr. King traveled to Los Angeles, first speaking to the state Democratic convention, then delivering a Sunday church sermon. Ray would later write this.
JAMES EARL RAY: I wouldn't say I hated King. I do think most preachers are a little phony, but I wouldn't consider shooting them.
O'BRIEN: The sermon was March 17th. King flew east to Memphis to speak the next day to striking garbage workers. That same day James Earl Ray filled out this change of address card and he, too, left Los Angeles, driving east. The new address he listed -- King's home city of Atlanta. Ahead for both men, a date with murder.
Coming up, the FBI -- dirty minds and dirty tricks.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Someone was left in the room and was recorded in the act of sexual intercourse and they assumed it was Dr. King.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
KING: (INAUDIBLE). Good luck here. Bye-bye.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Someone was stalking Dr. King, but this time they had White House approval to do it.
KING: I have a dream today.
O'BRIEN: Dr. King's electrifying speech at the March on Washington in August of 1963 had made him the movement's hero. It also made him the FBI's nightmare, according to the official paper trail.
KING: Thank God almighty, we are free at last.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We regard Martin Luther King to be the most dangerous Negro leader in the country.
O'BRIEN (on camera): They called him in one of the FBI memos released later "the most dangerous Negro."
YOUNG: I think that's probably a compliment.
O'BRIEN: Andrew Young, one of King's closest advisers, says the inner circle was very much aware that the government was spying on them.
YOUNG: I mean we saw the FBI. They were not very subtle. I mean they all dressed alike with little skinny ties and crew cuts, for the most part.
O'BRIEN: Pulitzer Prize winner David Garrow, who teaches at Cambridge University in England, discovered thousands of these memos while writing his book, "The FBI and Martin Luther King."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Martin Luther King, Jr. is knowingly, willingly and regularly cooperating with and taking guidance from communists.
O'BRIEN: The memos show an FBI obsessed with the red menace.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Police attend meeting to discuss neutralization of King, to develop evidence of King's dependence on communists.
O'BRIEN: They leaked these details to the press to discredit Dr. King. And Director J. Edgar Hoover sent Attorney General Robert Kennedy a warning -- communists were pulling Dr. King's puppet strings. Two top advisers, including lawyer Stanley Levison, had been Communist Party members. They cut those ties working with King.
DAVID GARROW, AUTHOR: The bureau never came up with one iota of indication that Levison or anyone else was actively working some communist line or communist influence.
O'BRIEN: Congressman John Lewis, a long-time Democratic power in the House, was an important young leader in King's inner circle.
REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: J. Edgar Hoover never understood, and others around him, that when you are being discriminated against, you don't need someone from Moscow or someone from any other part of the world to tell you that you're being discriminated against.
O'BRIEN: But in October of 1963, Robert Kennedy signed off on wiretaps. Atlanta agents broke into Dr. King's home and office to install them.
(on camera): Did you know the FBI was tapping your phones? YOUNG: Oh, yes.
O'BRIEN: You assumed it or knew it?
YOUNG: Oh, we knew it.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Nothing was sacred. Young remembers how fellow minister, Ralph Abernathy, discovered an FBI bug while speaking at an Alabama church.
YOUNG: And he said look here. And he took the little microphone out and he put it up on top of the pulpit. And he said little doohickey, I want you to tell President Johnson and I want you to tell J. Edgar Hoover, I want you to tell George Wallace, I want you to tell everybody that no matter what they think, we are going to be free. And the whole church just cheered.
O'BRIEN: But there were no cheers when FBI surveillance caught Dr. King in an embarrassing moment. It was 1964 at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.
YOUNG: A bunch of guys were in the room clowning and there were having a very good time. And then it quieted down and someone was left in the room and was recorded in the act of sexual intercourse. And they assumed it was Dr. King.
O'BRIEN: The same year at another hotel in Los Angeles, the FBI recorded Dr. King telling a dirty joke about the recently assassinated President John Kennedy. Hoover sent the tape and the transcript to Bobby Kennedy. The FBI tapes did not endear King to the attorney general or to the White House.
GARROW: The price that was paid was that there was never as much close trust between President Kennedy, President Johnson and King.
O'BRIEN: Hoover's contempt for King was clear in his scroll left on several FBI memos.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: King is a tomcat with obsessive, degenerate sexual urges. King could well qualify for the top alley cat prize. Disgusting.
O'BRIEN (on camera): They're listening in on Dr. King, they're writing memos, they're sharing those memos with presidents. Those two guys...
O'BRIEN: ...have sex on the brain a lot.
GARROW: Yes. It's a hatred of a hypocrite. They think that they have this special knowledge, thanks to the electronic surveillance, that King is so personally sexually a hypocrite, not a minister of the gospel.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Hoover's FBI leaked these sex stories to the press, but no newspaper took the bait. They couldn't ignore Hoover when he called Reverend King the most notorious liar in the country in a rare 1964 press conference.
GARROW: The bureau very much, very explicitly wanted Martin Luther King out of the civil rights movement.
O'BRIEN: So the FBI took it one more nasty step. When Dr. King won the Nobel Prize, the FBI mailed an anonymous package to Dr. King's office. On it, highlights from the sex tapes with an ominous note.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. The American public will know you for what you are -- an evil, abnormal beast. King, you are done. There is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You'd better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.
YOUNG: The implication was that this was supposed to provoke him to suicide.
O'BRIEN: Dr. King's wife, Coretta, opened the package. Horrified, she showed it to her husband and his advisers.
(on camera): It was blackmail, basically.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was blackmail.
LEWIS: I think J. Edgar Hoover had a dislike for Martin Luther King, Jr.
LEWIS: It was a personal dislike.
O'BRIEN: Lewis believes Hoover's hatred blinded him to Dr. King's dreams.
LEWIS: I think J. Edgar Hoover became convinced that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a threat to do order of American society.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Yet King was unmoved by the FBI's truly dirty tricks.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He saw this as part of his life, just the way he would have to live for the rest of his life.
O'BRIEN: Still ahead, military spies on the rooftop.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They said they wanted to take pictures.
O'BRIEN: And the fatal moment.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He probably never even heard the shot.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) (NEWS BREAK)
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Early in 1968, black garbage collectors in Memphis, Tennessee went on strike over low wages. Garbage man, Taylor Rogers.
TAYLOR ROGERS, FMR. MEMPHIS GARBAGE MAN: We made about 99 cents an hour. You could work a 40-hour week and be eligible for welfare.
O'BRIEN: Civil rights leader Reverend Billy Kyles.
REV. BILLY KYLES, CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: If it rained, they didn't work. The white drivers got paid, but they didn't get paid.
O'BRIEN: Garbage piled up in the streets and backyards. Talks broke down. Police clashed with strikers marching down Main Street.
ROGERS: That's when they would use tear gas and night sticks.
O'BRIEN: Strike leader Joe Warren.
JOE WARREN, MEMPHIS STRIKE LEADER: You get it in the eyes, you couldn't see nothing then.
O'BRIEN: Reverend Kyles was in Miami with King that weekend.
KYLES: When you really get a movement going, it's time to call for Martin.
O'BRIEN: Congressman John Lewis.
REP JOHN LEWIS, CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: He got side-tracked. He didn't have any intention of going to Memphis. That was not part of the plan. It was not on the map.
O'BRIEN: Dr. King was planning a poor people's march in Washington, D.C. that spring to lay siege to the Congress, to demand an end to poverty rooted in racism.
A lot of people didn't want Dr. King to be in Memphis. They felt it was a distraction.
KYLES: I was one of those that felt we needed to stick with the poor people's campaign.
O'BRIEN: King over ruled his staff and flew to Memphis to speak to an overflow crowd on the night of March 18th.
KING: If one black person is down, we are all down.
KYLES: He was talking, man, he would set you on fire.
WARREN: Then we got greedy. What about coming back and leading a march? O'BRIEN: A snowstorm postponed the march planned for the end of the week. King headed for Middle, Alabama instead. That Friday night, March 22nd, driving east from Los Angeles, James Earl Ray stopped here at this motel in Selma, Alabama. He registered as Eric Galt (ph). The motel was just past the Edmund-Pettis (ph) bridge, where three years earlier state troopers had attacked civil rights protesters on what would become known as Bloody Sunday.
Ray could not explain that stop over, even to his lawyer, Arthur Haines Jr.
ARTHUR HAINES JR. LAWYER FOR JAMES EARL RAY: Typical Ray, evasion; I was just passing through and I stayed there. Nothing.
O'BRIEN: From Selma, Ray went on to Atlanta, staying in a cheap boarding house near down town. Later, the FBI would find in his room a city map with circles drawn around the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King preached, and around the neighborhood where he lived.
On Thursday, March 28th, Reverend King returned to Memphis for a massive protest in support of the garbage workers. Violence erupted among angry black youths at the rear of the march.
WARREN: Somebody threw a rock, a brick, or something in a store.
KYLES: Everything went haywire. Police were coming and throwing mace and dragging people out of the line and doing everything.
O'BRIEN: Windows were smashed, stores looted. Police shot this teenager to death. King's aide, Andrew Young.
ANDREW YOUNG, AIDE TO DR. KING: Nobody anticipated that this one would get out of hand.
O'BRIEN (on camera): What was his reaction when it did?
YOUNG: His reaction was the deepest depression I've ever seen him in.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Reverend King was rushed away from the march to take refuge at a nearby white-owned hotel, not the black- owned Lorraine Motel. The FBI smear campaign went into action. This memo proposes a leak to tell them --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When violence broke out, King disappeared. King chose to hide out in a white-owned and operated Holiday Inn.
O'BRIEN: Reverend Kyles found King there.
(on camera): Was Reverend King determined that he had to come back and do it right?
KYLES: Oh, yes. He was absolutely determined to come back and do it. He said, if we don't have a peaceful march in Memphis, we cannot go to Washington. O'BRIEN (voice-over): That very next day, Friday, March 29th, James Earl Ray drove from Atlanta back to Birmingham. He found this ad in the local newspaper. Ray's own words, again.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got the address of the Aero Marine supply out of the want ad section. I called Aero Marine and they said they had a large supply of rifles.
O'BRIEN: The store owner did not want to be interviewed, but pointed out where Ray stood at the counter that day.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I asked the salesman for a deer rifle, and he showed me one, which I bought.
O'BRIEN: But after Ray left, he insisted the mystery man, Raoul, told him to get a different rifle.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I then called Aero Marine and told them it was the wrong kind of rifle. I think I told them my brother-in-law told me that.
O'BRIEN: Ray wrote brother-in-law in this account, but the salesman told the FBI that ray said, his brother.
(on camera): Did he mean you? Were you in Birmingham that day?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was just a figure of speech, I guess. Because, at the time, I had never been in the state of Birmingham.
O'BRIEN: This is the rifle that James Earl Ray would buy, a powerful 30-6 Remington Bush Master Hunting Rifle, with a magnifying scope, a gun that would be found just five days later left at the murder scene in Memphis.
(voice-over): Ray bought that rifle using another alias, Harvey Lowmeyer (ph). Ray also bought a box of high velocity bullets. The total cost for the gun and ammunition came to just under 250 dollars. Ray paid in cash. Once again, he used 20 dollar bills.
Back in Atlanta, reeling from the failed protest march, King was in a bleak mood.
YOUNG: It was the only three or four days or week that he never smiled, he never laughed, he didn't say anything. When he said something, it was in real anger and bitterness.
O'BRIEN: On Sunday, March 31st, Reverend King would deliver his last sermon at Washington's National Cathedral. That night, President Lyndon Johnson, besieged by the Vietnam War, stunned the nation.
LYNDON JOHNSON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.
O'BRIEN: The next day, Monday, April Fool's Day, King announced he would return to Memphis for a second march, trying to escape from the shadow of violence.
YOUNG: He might have thought that this was the end, but he never said that. He was only determined to go back and go on.
O'BRIEN: Ahead, the last speech.
KYLES: He always said, I will never live to be 40. He was 39.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Martin Luther King's flight from Atlanta to Memphis on Wednesday, April 3rd, was delayed by a bomb scare. His staff shrugged.
YOUNG: We had been living with threats, and we always said that when it's real, nobody's going to tell you.
O'BRIEN: Dr. King checked in again at the black-owned Lorraine Motel, this time without police protection. A local civil rights worker turned that down because of the clash with police the week before. Edward Redditt, who guarded King two years earlier, was now part of a police intelligence unit.
EDWARD REDDITT, FMR. KING BODY GUARD: I saw no security at the airport with him. That always bothered me. Why I was being told to do it one way, then he comes back the next time and it's not done that way.
O'BRIEN: This aerial photo showing the Lorraine Motel behind a Main Street rooming house, hangs on the wall of Arthur Haines' law office.
ARTHUR HAINES, LAWYER: According to the prosecutors, the shot was fired from the bathroom and killed Dr. King over here on the second floor of the Lorraine.
O'BRIEN: Just south of the rooming house, across the street from the Lorraine, is this firehouse. In the back of the fire station, officer Redditt set up a surveillance post.
REDDITT: I call it surveillance, because if you couldn't be security, you've got to be surveilling.
O'BRIEN: This is the back window, now painted over. Fire Lieutenant George Lonakey (ph) was on duty that day.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had newspaper across the window. I had peep holes. There are three peep holes.
O'BRIEN: The Memphis police were not the only spies interested in the firehouse location. When National Guard troops rolled into Memphis after the looting and violence, with them came an Army intelligence unit from Fort McPherson in Atlanta. Fire Captain Carcell Weedon (ph) said two agents entered the fire station that week. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They came in and came to the watch desk, and wanted to go up on the top of the fire station. They said they wanted to take some pictures. Of course, when you get on top of that there, you are looking right strait over at Dr. King.
O'BRIEN: But on that roof, there was no place to hide.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you are up there, anybody can see you from across the street. They walked around this a minute and came back down.
O'BRIEN: The agents left. He never saw them again. That Wednesday, April 3rd, in the coffee shop at the Lorraine Hotel, Dr. King was handed court papers forbidding a second march. This local newspaper story mentioned King was staying at the Lorraine. That evening, on the outskirts of town, James Earl Ray drove his white Mustang up to the New Rebel Inn. He registered again as Eric Galt.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I checked in the New Rebel upon my arrival in Memphis. Raul showed up that night about 8:00 or 9:00. He had a raincoat on, as it was raining out.
O'BRIEN: As Ray told it, Raul wanted to show the rifle Ray bought in Birmingham to foreign buyers, in an apparent gun-running deal.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He told me we would have to rent a room, as we might be in Memphis for three or four days. I then gave him the name I had used indirectly before, Willard, one that I wouldn't forget.
KYLES: There were tornado warnings that night. It was thundering and lightning and raining.
O'BRIEN: While James Earl Ray sat in his motel, King was preparing to speak to the striking sanitation workers.
KYLES: There was some shutters in the back of the church, and they were banging because of the storm. And every time they would bang, he would do that. They would bang, and he would do that.
O'BRIEN (on camera): He was nervous.
KYLES: Yes, very much so.
O'BRIEN: He thought he was going to die soon.
KYLES: He knew he was. He always said, I will never live to be 40. He was 39.
KING: I don't know what will happen now. We have some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountain top. I don't mind.
O'BRIEN: Andrew Young took the Mountain Top speech in stride. YOUNG: The reason we weren't upset about it was that was about the third or fourth time I had heard him give that speech. And they were all times when it was dangerous. And whenever the situation was pretty tense, one of the ways he relieved himself was talking about it. And he did that in private, too. He said, well, I might not ever see it, but this movement will succeed.
KING: I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything! I'm not fearing any man! My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord!
KYLES: We had to help him to his seat.
YOUNG: Hen he finished speaking, he was just empty, drained. He gave it all he had.
KYLES: We had no way of knowing that would be the last speech of his life.
O'BRIEN: When we continue, the final moment.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bam! He came up off that grating about a foot.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): On the last day of his life, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. slept in. Later, he started a pillow fight with his friend, Andrew Young.
YOUNG: There was nothing nervous about him that last day in Memphis. In fact, we thought -- I thought we were home free.
O'BRIEN (on camera): Really?
YOUNG: I thought we had been through the most difficult days of the movement.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): That afternoon, James Earl Ray rented a room in the second floor boarding house. The rear of the building looks out at the Lorraine Hotel, just across the street. Ray managed to get this room, 5b, in the back.
(on camera): It is incredibly small.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is, indeed. And a little bit tacky, too.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): The boarding house is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Museum president Beverly Robertson (ph) showed me Ray's room.
(on camera): One of the witnesses later said that this desk, with a mirror that we can see there, was actually in front of the window. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It had been. He shifted that. He moved it. They say he moved it because people who were on either side of the room heard noise during the course of the day.
O'BRIEN: Furniture dragging?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Furniture dragging, chairs moving.
O'BRIEN: Ray used a 20 dollar bill to rent the room for the week, then left to buy these binoculars at a nearbye sporting goods store. He paid with two more 20 dollar bills, an eerie echo of that unsolved bank robbery back in his hometown.
Next door, at the fire station, the few black cops and firemen there were being spent away. Policeman Edward Redditt got a phone call.
REDDITT: The voice says, I'm going to kill you. I said, what? I'm going to kill you.
O'BRIEN: Superiors removed Redditt from his surveillance post. They said for his safety.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were some proud guys then.
O'BRIEN: Floyd Newsome (ph) was one of the city's first black fire fighters. He was transferred away from the fire station for the day. There's never been a good explanation to this day.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That made it smell a little bit. That made it smell a lot.
O'BRIEN: Ray had parked his Mustang here below the upstairs rooming-house when he moved in. He took along his own green bedspread, this one, which would tie him to the crime scene. Again, Ray's handwritten account.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got my suitcase out of the back of the car. I also put a bed spread in the cases. I didn't want the sleep on the one they had there if I had to stay there.
O'BRIEN: Opposite room 5B, a dirt streaked bathroom.
(on camera): It is actually not a long walk to the bathroom at all. Everybody on this floor would be using this bathroom.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Absolutely. Since it was a boarding house, there were boarders on either side of him, boarders down the hall, and everybody had to share a common bathroom.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Across the way, Martin Luther King was getting ready to leave for supper at Reverend Billy Kyle's house.
KYLES: I said, guys, we have to go. We have a rally tonight and we have to go to dinner. O'BRIEN: Kyles walked away. King leaned over the balcony railing, talking to others on the ground below. In the boardinghouse, someone locked that bathroom door.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He stood on the tub, cracked the window, and had a clear view of the people standing on the balcony in front of room 306.
O'BRIEN (on camera): It's not a long distance at all.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A couple hundred feet, maybe. That's it.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Next door at the police peep hole, the only black left in the firehouse, patrolman Willie Richmond.
WILLIE RICHMOND, FMR. MEMPHIS POLICE OFFICER: It was boring. I didn't like it.
O'BRIEN: Fireman George Lonakey (ph) asked to take a look and became the only living witness we found who saw King at the very moment he was shot. A sudden clap like two boards slammed together.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I looked through the peepholes, and I was looking at him. By the time it sounded like one before, two of them, just bam, went together.
KYLES: Then I got maybe about here, and the shot rang out.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He came up off that grating about a foot. Pow!
KYLES: Loud. A real loud shot.
O'BRIEN: Kyle's 40 years ago.
KYLES: I heard somebody holler, oh, lord!
YOUNG: I thought there was a firecracker, but I didn't see him. My first reaction was that he is clowning again. He's feigning like he's been shot. Then I saw his shoes sticking out from under the railing.
KYLES: I could see him lying on the balcony. One of his feet was sticking to the railing. There was a huge hole in his face.
YOUNG: The bullet hit the tip of his chin and tore half of his neck off.
KYLES: The police were coming, and I hollered to them, "Call an ambulance on your police radio. Dr. King has been shot."
And they said, "Where did the shot come from?"
Everybody was pointing in that direction.
O'BRIEN: Toward the back of the rooming house, upstairs, across the street.
A police squad taking a rest break at the firehouse ran down the slop toward the motel. Fireman George Loenneke (ph) reached the fallen King.
LOENNEKE: And the whole side of his right jaw was gone.
KYLES: I took a crushed cigarette out of his hand. He didn't want kids to see him smoke. And I took a package out of his pocket. I have them in my possession somewhere now. I have a handkerchief where I wiped much blood off my hands.
LOENNEKE: I couldn't feel a pulse beat or nothing, and I knew that he was done and gone.
YOUNG: So, he probably never even heard the shot.
O'BRIEN: Just ahead: the evidence left behind.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I knew it was a rifle. It was a hunting-type rifle.
O'BRIEN: And the doubts that remain.
(on camera): You don't think James Earl Ray acted alone?
YOUNG: I don't James Earl Ray acted.
O'BRIEN: You don't think he pulled the trigger?
YOUNG: I don't think he had anything to do with the killing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was nothing nervous about him that last day in Memphis.
KING: I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He probably never even heard the shot.
BEVERLY ROBERTSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM: This is the rifle that had the fingerprints on James Earl Ray on it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everyone wanted a guilty plea, except me.
ARTHUR HANES, FORMER ATTORNEY FOR JAMES EARL RAY: In terms of whether something is true or not, because James Earl Ray said it, I would say it's a pure toss-up.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): When a police team stopped for a rest break at this firehouse, patrolman Gene Douglas (ph) was left in a car outside to monitor the radio.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I heard a noise, like a shot. Well, it was more like a rifle. That's when everybody inside the firehouse started running out, saying: "King's been shot. King's been shot."
O'BRIEN: Douglas reached for his radio Mike.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have information King has been shot at the Lorraine.
O'BRIEN: Captain Jewell Ray (ph) raced out of police headquarters, heading to the scene. There, on South Main Street, he saw a bundle abandoned in the recessed doorway of a records store, right below the rooming house.
The store owner told him two customers saw a man run by.
CAPTAIN JEWELL RAY, MEMPHIS POLICE: It was two black gentlemen in there that had told him that a -- a white fellow had dropped it there, and then had gotten in a White mustang and drove off.
O'BRIEN: The bundle was covered with a green bedspread, this one.
JEWELL RAY: I took the bedspread off and looked. It was a gun box. And I took a pencil, opened up the gun box, and we could see a rifle. I knew it was a rifle. It was a hunting-type rifle.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a weapon in front of 424. And the subject ran south on Main Street.
O'BRIEN: The captain told a patrolman to guard the evidence.
JEWELL RAY: He had a pump shotgun. And he brought it up to port arms like this. And he got a very stern face on it. And I said, don't let anybody see it.
BEVERLY ROBERTSON, NATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM: This is the rifle that had the fingerprints of James Earl Ray on it when it was found outside the boarding house.
O'BRIEN: The rifle, the one Ray bought in Birmingham, is on display today, upstairs in the rooming house, now part of the National Civil Rights Museum run by Beverly Robertson.
(on camera): It's got a scope on the top.
ROBERTSON: Yes. He had a scope on it. I think he felt that he needed a scope, but it was a very short distance, that he didn't need to be a marksman or a sharpshooter to be able to hit the target.
O'BRIEN: It was an easy shot.
ROBERTSON: It was an easy shot. I bet you or I could have probably made that shot.
O'BRIEN (on camera): Across, at the Lorraine Motel, witnesses had pointed to the back of a boarding house.
JEWELL RAY: So we went up there, got to the top of the steps. And there was a little lady there. And she appeared to be deaf, dumb. She was doing like this. And it was like she was shooting a rifle. And she pointed to the bathroom at the end of the hallway.
O'BRIEN: In the bathroom, the police captain found the window open, its screen knocked out.
JEWELL RAY: You could see exactly to the motel where Dr. King had been shot.
O'BRIEN: He went to find the landlady.
JEWELL RAY: And I asked her who was renting this room. And she went and got her receipt book and gave me the name. And, if I remember right, John Willard or something like that. I went down to the car and put out a broadcast on John Willard in a white Mustang.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Information we have on the subject is a young white male well-dressed, possibly in a late-model white Mustang, went north on Main Street.
O'BRIEN: It was already too late. The police dispatcher, Vince Hughes (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Main Street was not cordoned off for probably two minutes.
O'BRIEN: The first instinct had been to cordon off the Lorraine Hotel. Most shootings involve arguments at close range. So, police raced toward the victim, and precious time was lost.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the 25 years that I spent on the police department, that was the only occasion that I can remember where we had a sniper.
O'BRIEN: Murders committed by complete strangers are incredibly hard to solve, unless the killer makes his own mistakes. Not only did that rifle have Ray's fingerprint on it, and no one else's; this empty shell casing was in the gun. One shot had been fired.
Ray's fingerprint was also found on the binoculars he bought, on these beer cans in that same bundle, even that day's newspaper, which told readers where King was staying.
ROBERTSON: This was a radio that he had in the penitentiary.
O'BRIEN: This, too, was left in the doorway beneath the boarding house.
ROBERTSON: And his prison number, I believe, is scratched on here. O'BRIEN: Ray's hair would link him to the bedspread. And then there was this in the bundle.
(on camera): So, this laundry tag from his shorts...
O'BRIEN: ... was traced back to him?
ROBERTSON: Exactly. Exactly.
O'BRIEN: , James Earl Ray would eventually admit almost everything, except killing King.
His brother, Jerry Ray.
JERRY RAY, BROTHER OF JAMES EARL RAY: He don't deny that he didn't rent the room. He don't deny he didn't buy the gun. The only thing he denies is that he was in that room.
O'BRIEN (on camera): The only thing he denies is that he shot Dr. King?
JERRY RAY: That's the only thing -- that's the only thing he didn't do.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Jerry Ray says, before the shot was fired, his brother drove the Mustang away to try to get a spare tire fixed.
(on camera): No witnesses have said, yes, he came in to get the spare tire fixed. Yes, I saw that man. We were too busy. We couldn't take him, but he was here.
Nobody. There's not one witness who has talked about a man coming in to get a spare tire fixed.
JERRY RAY: Well, I don't know for sure. I don't know if -- if nobody admitted that he -- that he was in there or not.
O'BRIEN: When you talk about the bundle, your brother's fingerprints are on it. There are binoculars in there. His underwear...
JERRY RAY: Beer car. I think like a whole beer can.
O'BRIEN: The green blanket that he had admitted bringing up to the room.
JERRY RAY: Yes.
O'BRIEN: Who would have had access to all those things?
JERRY RAY: That guy -- the guy that called himself Raoul that was in the room, because James wasn't in the room. O'BRIEN (voice-over): But no one saw this man called Raoul with Ray. And, within minutes of the shooting, James Earl Ray had driven his white Mustang out of Memphis, into the darkness of night.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Information we have on the subject is a young white male well-dressed, possibly in a late-model white Mustang, went north on Main Street, 6:10.
O'BRIEN: Next: Ray on the run, trying to reach white-ruled areas in Africa.
DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS: Dan Rather, reporting for CBS News from New York.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death by an assassin late today as he stood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fires are burning in many sections of the Negro ghettos.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Rioting erupted in more than 100 cities across the nation that night, and through the weekend.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even as dusk approached, weary firemen ran from blaze to blaze, often braving snipers' bullets to put out the fire. At least one policeman was wounded by a sniper.
O'BRIEN: Firebombings, looting, sniper fire.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Smoke wreathed the Capitol Dome. And there was smoke, too, around the Washington Monument.
O'BRIEN: In the nation's capital, more than 7,000 people were arrested. Federal troops occupied the city for more than a week.
Not long after dawn, the day after the murder, James Earl Ray parked his white Mustang in a low-income housing project in Atlanta, and headed for the bus station. Within 48 hours of King's death, Ray had reached Toronto, Canada. He rented a room in an immigrant area near downtown.
James Earl Ray wrote:
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "The woman couldn't speak hardly any English, and the man not much better. I never gave them a name, as they never asked me for one."
Ray read through old newspapers for birth announcements and chose this one from 1932, Ramon Sneyd. Ray, posing as a government official, phoned the real Sneyd. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "He told me he never had a passport, so I decided to get a passport in his name, as his picture would not be on file at the passport office."
O'BRIEN: The FBI thought, at first, King's murder was a conspiracy. Harvey Lowmeyer bought the rifle. John Willard rented the room. Eric Galt drove the Mustang.
When the fingerprints and the strands of hair showed they were all the same man, the FBI issued this warrant for Eric Starvo Galt. Then, sifting thousands of records, the FBI matched those fingerprints with an escaped con from Missouri, James Earl Ray.
It began a nationwide manhunt for Ray. The next day, Ray left Toronto for Montreal, trying to get on a ship to Africa. He failed. When he returned to Toronto, the passport was waiting at a travel agency.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "When I went in the next day to pick it up, I found out the name was spelled wrong, S-N-E-Y-A, instead of S-N-E-Y- D."
O'BRIEN: Early in May, Ray boarded a plane to London, then flew on to Lisbon, Portugal, staying at this hotel for less than $2 a night.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "I spent most of my time there trying to get on a ship to Angola."
(on camera): Why was he trying to get to Angola, Rhodesia?
JERRY RAY: Well, where he was mainly wanting to get to was a place that didn't have an extradition treaty with the United States.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Arthur Hanes, his first lawyer.
HANES: He had signed on to be a crewman in a Portuguese freighter, had it made, had it made, overslept the day the ship sailed, and he found himself in Lisbon with no job and no money.
O'BRIEN: Ray may have told Hanes that, but what he wrote was different. He said he couldn't get a visa in time.
What about oversleeping?
HANES: In terms of whether something is true or not, because James Earl Ray said it, I would say it's a pure toss-up.
O'BRIEN: Ray went to the Canadian Embassy in Lisbon to get a new passport with Sneyd, spelled correctly, then returned to London.
Within two weeks, Canadian authorities matched this photo on the Sneyd passport application with James Earl Ray. A palm print, like this one, on other paperwork confirmed the identification. An alert went out worldwide. Ray was running out of time and money.
In a London suburb, a gunman walked into this bank and fled with some $200 in British pounds. A thumbprint on the holdup note turned out to be Ray's.
That next night, half-a-world away, in Los Angeles, another assassination that would tear at the nation's fabric, the death of Robert F. Kennedy.
John Lewis was waiting for Kennedy to come back upstairs to his hotel room.
REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: And it was too much. I broke down and cried.
O'BRIEN (on camera): It was a lot of loss back to back.
LEWIS: Forty years later, it is too much. And I felt then that, with the assassination of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, something had died in all of us.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): With his bank robbery money, Ray was making one last effort to reach white areas of Africa.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "I finally contacted a newspaper reporter who said the mercenaries had an office in Brussels, Belgium. I then bought a ticket to Brussels."
O'BRIEN: With this ticket in hand, and both passports, Ray went to the London Airport on Saturday, June 8.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "I went to the boarding zone. I was told by one officer that he wanted to ask me a few questions."
O'BRIEN: The officer recognized the names on Ray's two passports were on a watch list.
It was the morning of Robert F. Kennedy's funeral when the news broke. James Earl Ray, accused killer of Martin Luther King Jr., had been arrested in London.
HANES: This is a picture of my dad and me.
O'BRIEN: Ray wanted Arthur Hanes and his son, Arthur Jr., as lawyers, because they had won an acquittal of a Ku Klux Klansman involved in killing a civil rights volunteer outside Selma.
The younger Hanes, now a retired judge, describes Ray this way.
HANES: A nebbish, always was. That was my impression of him throughout, that he was -- he was an invisible man.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): But try to ask him a hard question?
HANES: He would act as if he were someone trying to think of an answer. Criminals, cons will do that. We never had any real confidence in the truthfulness of what he said.
O'BRIEN: The one thing Ray would not discuss, even with his lawyers, was the murder of Martin Luther King.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We never, never were able to evoke any kind of reaction from James Earl Ray one way or the other about Dr. King or his life or otherwise.
O'BRIEN: In July, in the middle of the night, Ray was flown back to Memphis in handcuffs. Finally, next March, Ray appeared in a Memphis courtroom in a deal to avoid the death penalty.
The judge asked him this:
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are entering a plea of guilty to murder in the first degree as charged in the indictment and are compromising and settling your case on an agreed punishment of 99 years in the state penitentiary.
Is this what you want to do?
JAMES EARL RAY, DEFENDANT: Yes, I do.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
O'BRIEN: But, only two weeks later, from prison, Ray would send a letter to the judge trying to undo that plea deal, opening the door to 40 years of doubt.
Still to come: a dramatic denial.
DEXTER KING, SON OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Did you kill my father?
JAMES EARL RAY: No, I didn't, no.
ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": I'm Anderson Cooper.
"Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination" continues in a moment.
First, here's a 360 bulletin.
The whistle-blowers who exposed maintenance and inspection problems at Southwest Airlines today told Congress, in explosive testimony, that their jobs were threatened and their reports ignored for years. The committee is looking into allegations the FAA turned a blind eye to safety violations by airlines. One inspector said he was ordered to destroy his notes on inspections after the FAA learned about the congressional investigation.
On the campaign trail, Senator Barack Obama raked in more than $40 million in March, more than twice that of what his rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, raised. More than half of Obama's donors were giving for the first time. The Illinois senator is now just $25 million shy of President Bush's presidential primary fund-raising record of $259 million.
In other "Raw Politics," While fund-raising today in California, Senator Clinton appeared to dispute a report that she once told New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson she didn't think Barack Obama could win in a general election. When asked if she made the comment, she said -- quote -- "That's a no."
Later, one of Clinton's staffers said the senator had misheard the question and actually thought she was being asked if she would divulge her private conversation with Richardson. Richardson, as you know, has endorsed Obama.
COOPER: And Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Hillary Clinton's most powerful supporter heading into the April 22 primary, is speaking out about accusations he made racist remarks about Barack Obama.
Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. ED RENDELL (D), PENNSYLVANIA: It wasn't intended to be racist.
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You don't regret your comments at all about Barack Obama and white voters?
RENDELL: Do I think that there was anything wrong with it? Absolutely not. I told the truth. And we have got to be able to speak the truth about race without someone pointing their finger and saying, you're racist.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you very much.
KAYE: Rendell calls Obama a formidable candidate who has done a great job of putting the race issue behind him.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: CNN's Randi Kaye and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell.
You can see Randi's full report in the next hour of 360.
"Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination" continues in a moment.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): In 1997, Dr. King's youngest son, Dexter, thanked the man who pleaded guilty to murdering his father.
Dexter was just 7 when he lost his dad. Now, as a grown man, Dexter looked Ray in the eye and asked him the question.
DEXTER KING, SON OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Did you kill my father?
JAMES EARL RAY: No, no, I didn't, no. But, like I say, sometimes, these -- these questions have difficult answers.
D. KING: I want you to know that I believe you and my family believes you. And we are going to do everything in our power to try and make sure that justice will prevail.
WILLIAM PEPPER, ATTORNEY FOR JAMES EARL RAY: Thank you for coming here this morning.
O'BRIEN: The attorney who orchestrated this unlikely event is William Pepper. As Ray's lawyer, he saw an opening. And with the King family's blessing, Pepper pushed for a new trial.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Make a statement, Mr. Ray. We're listening.
O'BRIEN: Ray, from day one, regretted his guilty plea, as he explained to the parole board in 1997.
JAMES EARL RAY: Everyone wanted the guilty plea, except me.
O'BRIEN: For years, a number of Dr. King's closest aides and friends had voiced doubts about the case, both then...
REVEREND JESSE JACKSON, FOUNDER, RAINBOW/PUSH COALITION: I think the government rushed to judgment.
LEWIS: I have always felt that James Earl Ray didn't act alone.
O'BRIEN: And now.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think James Earl Ray acted.
O'BRIEN (on camera): You don't think he pulled the trigger?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think he was anywhere near there.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): William Pepper first met James Earl Ray in 1978 when he went to visit him in prison. Pepper came away from that meeting certain of one thing.
WILLIAM PEPPER, AUTHOR, "ORDERS TO KILL": It was pretty clear that he was not the shooter. O'BRIEN: Had there not been a guilty plea, there might have been two huge holes in the prosecutor's case. First, ballistics experts could not match this bullet, which killed Dr. King, with the rifle Ray bought. The bullet was badly mangled upon impact, and the markings made by the rifle barrel when the gun was fired fell short of scientific certainty.
Second, two men living in the boarding house could not identify the man they saw running from the bathroom after the sound of the shot. He held a hand to his face. The government's case places the shooter in the bathroom. But police had one witness at the time who did see someone else.
Solomon Jones, King's driver that day, says he saw a man with a white hood over his head in the bushes across the street from the Lorraine Motel. The next day, something strange happened at the crime scene. The bushes you see here were cut back.
PEPPER: I questioned the guy who was the head of the public works department, and I said, "Who ordered you to cut down the bush."
He said I was ordered immediately to get a team down there to work with the police first thing the next morning to just clean that whole place up.
O'BRIEN: William Pepper says there were military intelligence officers on the roof of the fire station next door. According to him, they took one incredible photo.
PEPPER: One of the guys, when the shot took place, took his camera and spanned it all the way around the left into the bushes, and he caught the shooter lowering the rifle. And he said it was not James Earl Ray. All right? Definitively.
O'BRIEN: But Pepper says he never saw those photos. He says he knew a guy who did, but Pepper could never lay his hands on them. Those bushes were in the backyard of Jim's Grill. Jim's was a working-man's dive right below the rooming house. It was owned by the now deceased Lloyd Jowers.
PEPPER: I had known old Lloyd, and by then I'd known him for 20 years.
O'BRIEN: On the evening of the assassination, Pepper says an employee went looking for Jowers.
PEPPER: And she hears this shot, boom. And she stops. And then she continues. And she goes to the open door. All of a sudden she sees Lloyd running toward her, carrying this rifle, still smoking.
O'BRIEN: Pepper says Lloyd Jowers didn't actually shoot Dr. King. He helped get rid of the gun as a favor to a mafia connection who came to see him.
PEPPER: And gave him $100,000 and said, "You're going to -- your place is going to be needed for the killing of that nigger, King." O'BRIEN: Pepper believes the mafia was in cahoots with the federal government and local police, who wanted King dead. Jowers told him as much.
PEPPER: It was planned in his place. There were logistical meetings there with police officers, and he was given a role to do in terms of what -- in terms of the gun being out there, taking the gun, eventually turning it over to Raoul.
O'BRIEN: Again, the mysterious Raoul. James Earl Ray had always insisted a man named Raoul or someone else must have left Ray's belongings behind to frame him.
JAMES EARL RAY, FOUND GUILTY OF KING ASSASSINATION: I think I was taken advantage of, obviously. Some people use a different word. They use "duped" and all this stuff.
O'BRIEN: In 1997, CNN's Larry King asked James Earl Ray about this.
LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": What were you doing with the rifle that day?
JAMES EARL RAY: I'd been with a project with a guy named Raoul for about eight or nine months.
The rifle was supposed to be at his place for more of these projects in Mexico and some type of arms deal.
PEPPER: There's no question that Raoul existed and does exist.
O'BRIEN: Armed with so much information, Pepper wrote a book.
ISAAC FERRIS, MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.'S NEPHEW: It was me who first read William Pepper's book and actually brought him to meet my family, where we dialogued.
O'BRIEN: Isaac Ferris, Dr. King's nephew and the head of the King Center, says that book and that dialogue persuaded the King family to get involved.
CORETTA SCOTT KING, WIDOW OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I feel that my family, Mr. Ray, and the American people have been unjustly denied the due process that is the birthright of every citizen.
PEPPER: We came very close to getting a real trial for James, because there was a black judge called Joe Brown.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would object to the entire line of questioning.
JUDGE JOE BROWN, JUDGE: We were trying to get the facts. We've got Dr. King dead, in his grave, a national hero, a world hero, a national holiday named after him. And I'm not going to allow the vicissitudes of somebody's artful cross-examination to keep me, as a trier of facts, from getting to the bottom of this. Overruled. O'BRIEN: And Judge Brown ruled in February 1997 that they could retest the weapon.
Ballistics experts fired Ray's weapon 18 times to see if they could get a match. The results were inconclusive. But Ferris says one of those experts privately told him something else.
FERRIS: It was said to me that, while no conclusions could be made, if they were pressed for a conclusion, they would err on the side of it not being the gun.
O'BRIEN: Ray never got a new trial. William Pepper turned to the King family one last time. They filed a civil case against Lloyd Jowers and other unknown co-conspirators.
PEPPER: All the evidence, from the beginning to the end how Martin King was killed and why he was killed and who coordinated the killing, came out under oath.
O'BRIEN: In less than an hour, the jury ruled that Lloyd Jowers, not James Earl Ray, was involved in the murder, a verdict embraced by all those who believe the true killer has yet to be caught.
Next, the CIA factor.
CAPTAIN JEWELL RAY, MEMPHIS POLICE DEPARTMENT: He said he had Dr. King's head in his lap. That's him. They're holding him.
O'BRIEN: And why prosecutors still believe Ray acted alone.
JAMES EARL RAY: I also felt I could establish I was at a service station at the time Martin Luther King was shot.
O'BRIEN: This is the only time that James Earl Ray has ever testified publicly under oath. He described the mystery man he called Raoul at a 1978 at the House Assassinations Committee.
JAMES EARL RAY: He was approximately 35 to 40 years old, 5'9", with dark hair and a red tan (ph). And he spoke with a slight Spanish accept.
O'BRIEN: John Campbell was the final prosecutor who fought all of Ray's appeals. He maintains the biggest problem with the Raoul story was, it kept changing.
(on camera) Why are you convinced there's no Raoul?
JOHN CAMPBELL, PROSECUTOR: He started out as a red-haired French Canadian. By the time we get into the late chapters of the story, it's Raoul, and he's from Central America. And he's a CIA operative or a gun-runner or God knows what.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Nobody was ever found to place a Raoul with James Earl Ray in Atlanta or Birmingham or Memphis.
CAMPBELL: Nobody ever sees Raoul other than apparently Ray. And that's another problem. Is, you know, it's almost like, you know, the six-foot tall bunny. He can see him but nobody else can.
O'BRIEN: Even lawyer William Pepper concedes...
PEPPER: No, we never found anybody to place Raoul -- who placed James in Raoul's presence or Raoul in James' presence. We were never able to do that.
O'BRIEN: I asked Ray's brother Jerry about that.
(on camera) But there's no one ever who said, "Oh, yes, I saw the meeting." Or "They were walking down the street together." Or "Yes, I saw him driving James' car."
JERRY RAY, JAMES EARL RAY'S BROTHER: Yes. Yes.
O'BRIEN: None of that.
JERRY RAY: No, no, no. You probably won't. You probably won't.
O'BRIEN: Isn't that strange?
JERRY RAY: No, No, no. Them guys are professionals, see. They know what they're doing. They know how to cover their tracks.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Reverend King's closest aide, Andrew Young.
ANDREW YOUNG, FORMER AIDE TO MARTIN LUTHER KING: I think that there was a determination in very high places that our movement had to be stopped.
O'BRIEN: In his mind, a multilayered conspiracy.
YOUNG: But it certainly went as far as the FBI. And the Memphis police. And the U.S. military.
O'BRIEN: No, says the prosecutor.
CAMPBELL: It's an open secret that the government can't keep secrets. How could they have kept this quiet for 40 years, if there was this big operation in place? Everybody kept quiet. And I just don't believe that's possible.
O'BRIEN: Strange situations, as in this photo, have fed suspicions for years. See the man at the bottom bending over Dr. King? He's an undercover cop working for Memphis police Captain Jewell Ray.
JEWELL RAY: He's down there with Dr. King. He said he had Dr. King's head in his lap. That's him there holding him.
O'BRIEN: He's Marrell McCollough, an Army veteran assigned to infiltrate a black power group for the police. He'd just driven up to the Lorraine when the shot was fired. McCollough said he ran up to the balcony to attempt first aid.
JEWELL RAY: I never did see -- see McCullough again. I understand he got recruited by a federal agency, but I don't know which one. I heard Secret Service.
O'BRIEN: No, not the Secret Service. McCullough finished his career with the Central Intelligence Agency. However, the CIA said McCullough did not join the agency until six years after the assassination.
The Justice Department later said McCullough had passed a lie- detector test, clearing him of any involvement in the murder. When we look closer at conspiracy scenarios, like the military spies on the firehouse roof, cracks begin to show.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were not up there when Dr. King was shot, because I carried them up there and brought them down. They came back down, and that was the last of them.
O'BRIEN: Fire Captain Carsill Whedon (ph) originally said he took the agents on the roof on the morning of the murder. Now he thinks it was not even that particular day.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I think it was probably two days, a couple days before the assassination.
O'BRIEN: Look at this photo taken just seconds after the gunshot. It shows police rushing out of the firehouse. You can see the roof. There's no one up there.
So if the Army intelligence agents were not on the roof at the fatal moment, then there could be no photograph of a shooter in the bushes, despite what Pepper wants to believe.
We have seen the Army intelligence unit's records on what it did do in Memphis. Those files say the first photos the agents took were not until Coretta Scott King led a memorial march in Memphis, four days after her husband's death.
That leaves the uncertain story of Jim's Grill and its owner, Lloyd Jowers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was -- he was a drunk. See, we made his place (ph) back in them days. Of course, that place was a hole in the wall with cockroaches everywhere.
O'BRIEN: At the moment of the murder, there were 12 customers inside Jim's Grill. Police came by and locked the door for three hours. They took names and questioned everyone before they left. Not only did Jowers tell police he saw nothing unusual; his customers said the same thing.
CAMPBELL: That to me is the flaw in his testimony that you just can't get past, because you have to then say all these other people were mistaken. And there's no basis to believe that they are.
O'BRIEN: Lloyd Jowers told different stories to different people. First it was a black man who shot King. Then later a Memphis police captain, conveniently deceased.
Jowers did not testify in the civil case. His own lawyer put up little resistance, and the jury never had a chance to hear the prosecution's case. A sham trial, in Campbell's mind.
CAMPBELL: A lot of evidence, and I put evidence in quotes, that was presented there was basically third, fourth, fifth-hand hearsay.
O'BRIEN: As for anyone seeing a shooter behind Jim's Grill...
CAMPBELL: And yet, one -- one individual that claims he saw something in the bushes. But when he was interrogated, that story just didn't hold up.
O'BRIEN: No one in King's inner circle saw anyone over there. That's what they told police the first night, and we got the same answers 40 years later.
(on camera) Did you see anyone?
REV. BILLY KYLES, CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: No.
O'BRIEN: Not a soul?
KYLES: I did not.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Medical examiner Dr. Jerry Francisco performed the autopsy that night.
DR. JERRY FRANCISCO, MEDICAL EXAMINER FOR KING ASSASSINATION: Dr. King was killed by a gunshot wound to the head and neck.
O'BRIEN: Standing where Martin Luther King fell, he explained.
FRANCISCO: The bullet entered at this location of the jaw, passing through the jaw, through the neck, ending up in the back at this location where my thumb's located.
O'BRIEN: Forty years ago, Dr. Francisco went up on the same balcony to plot the path of the shot.
(on camera) The bullet came obviously this direction.
FRANCISCO: Came from left to right and above downward.
O'BRIEN: So a bullet fired from that bathroom window...
FRANCISCO: From that bathroom window.
O'BRIEN: ... would that be consistent with what you described?
FRANCISCO: Yes, it would. O'BRIEN: No question about it?
O'BRIEN: Could it have been fired from down below? There was an eyewitness.
FRANCISCO: No, it could not have been fired from down below, because you couldn't see the balcony from down below.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): The brush, he said, would have blocked the line of sight.
In prosecutor Campbell's office on the wall by his desk hangs this: James Earl Ray's death certificate, in 1998, at the age of 70.
(on camera) Why do you keep this hanging in your office? Does it feel like the chapter, or the book had closed?
CAMPBELL: Well, really, in many ways it had.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): For Campbell, the final answer to whether Ray was a lone gunman that day.
CAMPBELL: If this was a big conspiracy, he would have been murdered shortly after this. He would have been taken out and buried somewhere we'd have never found him. The fact that he lived all these years tells me that there wasn't a conspiracy.
O'BRIEN: When we come back...
JEWELL RAY: He wanted to get away.
O'BRIEN: ... the one mistake that caught a killer.
JEWELL RAY: And he dropped that bottle. Had it not been a policeman or anybody there, he could have been gone.
O'BRIEN: It was the bundle left at this doorway that would send James Earl Ray to prison for the rest of his life. For many people, it's been a mystery. Why was it dropped and by whom? For an answer, let's start again with that night 40 years ago.
(voice-over) Upstairs in the boarding house that evening, Charles Stevens was in his room next to the bathroom.
CHARLES STEVENS, IN ROOM NEXT TO BATHROOM: I heard what I thought was a shot, a loud explosion.
O'BRIEN: He saw a man walking quickly away down the hall.
STEVENS: He had a package underneath his arm. It was about yay long. O'BRIEN: The man ran down the stairs and turned south on the sidewalk. Suddenly, he ducked into a recessed doorway and dropped a bundle, this one.
(on camera) And it's a big bundle. I mean, in pictures, it's giant.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a huge bundle. It's a huge bundle and very incriminating in the end.
O'BRIEN: James Earl Ray left no fingerprints upstairs in the rooming house. Ray has acknowledged that he would put band-aids on his fingertips before a crime so he wouldn't leave prints.
But in that bundle was this rifle and on it a thumb print, Ray's left thumb. On the binoculars, the same thumb print. Also in the bundle in Memphis, this beer can. Again, with a print from his middle finger.
Ray's radio with his prison serial number, even something as personal as his undershorts.
(on camera) It's amazing how all of the different little threads, each individually may not make a very strong case.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.
O'BRIEN: All led back to one guy.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: To James Earl Ray.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): By now his white Mustang was parked just south of the doorway where the bundle was abandoned. Memphis police captain Jewell Ray.
JEWELL RAY: He wasn't but a couple car lengths from where he was parked. He hadn't seen somebody. Why didn't he just throw it in the car and take off?
O'BRIEN: A good question, one I asked his brother, Jerry Ray.
JERRY RAY: That was laid there deliberately to lead to him. You know, that's my opinion; that's his opinion.
O'BRIEN: In London, after James Earl Ray was caught, Scotland Yard detective Alec East was assigned to guard him. East told a House hearing this in 1978.
ALEC EAST, SCOTLAND YARD DETECTIVE: I recall that he said to me that he'd seen a policeman or a police vehicle and had panicked and thrown the gun away, and that his fingerprints would obviously be found on this -- on this weapon.
JAMES EARL RAY: It was false.
O'BRIEN: As soon as he heard this, Ray denied it. JAMES EARL RAY: I never discussed the case with any English policeman. So the -- all the statements in there are inaccurate.
O'BRIEN: But the panic story is plausible. There was a Memphis policeman outside, near the doorway. Patrolman Gene Douglas, left to man the radio in his squad car.
GENE DOUGLAS, MEMPHIS POLICE: We have information that King has been shot at Lorraine.
O'BRIEN: Douglas called in that first alert. Then he got out of the patrol car.
DOUGLAS: I came out here and started running -- running down this way.
O'BRIEN (on camera): OK. So you start running down this way. Why this way?
DOUGLAS: When I heard the shot, I couldn't tell exactly, you know, where it was coming from. But I didn't see any other place that it could have come from.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): See the older green Mustang parked by the lamp post on this day just as we're walking by? That's where James Earl Ray's white Mustang was parked that evening.
(on camera) Did you see anything?
DOUGLAS: I didn't see anybody or any cars moving or anything at that time.
O'BRIEN: This is the corner where he dropped bundle, right?
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Because the doorway is set back from the sidewalk, anyone there would have been hidden from the officer's view.
(on camera) And where did you think he stopped, approximately, running?
DOUGLAS: I would say probably about this far.
O'BRIEN: So what's that, 20, 30 feet?
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Douglas turned back when other officers called to him. He never saw Ray or anyone else hiding in the doorway. Yet had that bundle not been left behind, James Earl Ray might never have been identified or caught.
JEWELL RAY: If it hadn't been the fact that he came out of that building not knowing there was a policeman at that fire station. And when he did it and he come running out with that bundle. And you know, I do know from years of experience, criminals, they know what they've done. Nobody else does. But their mind -- it's on their mind what they just did. So when he saw the policeman, he knew he had just shot somebody, and he wanted to get away. And he dropped that bundle. Had there not been a policeman or anybody there, he would have been gone.
O'BRIEN: Instead, James Earl Ray would spend the rest of his life in prison. He never quit fighting to reverse his guilty plea, and never gave up trying to escape once again.
JERRY RAY: Every time he got ready to escape, he would write me a code letter.
O'BRIEN (on camera): So what would a code letter look like?
JERRY RAY: A code letter was you read every seventh word. If he underlined his name twice, that means read every seventh word.
O'BRIEN (voice-over): See the signature with the two lines underneath it? Now read every seventh word in this letter.
JERRY RAY: Place to bury articles.
O'BRIEN: This is a letter James sent Jerry before he did escape from the Tennessee state prison in 1977. He also smuggled out a wish list of what to bury: cigarettes, boots, ponchos, whisky.
(on camera) What was the whisky for?
JERRY RAY: Just to keep warm while he was out there.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seven inmates went over the back wall at the Brushy Mountain Prison.
O'BRIEN: Jerry hid a bag of supplies in the woods, but James couldn't find it.
JERRY RAY: He told me -- he said, if I'd made that bag they'd have never caught me.
O'BRIEN: Instead James Earl Ray was captured in just three days, his last days of freedom ever.
In the spring of 1998, James, now 70, was in a coma from liver disease. Jerry gave the doctor the nod to turn off the life support system.
JERRY RAY: He had me the executor of his will, and I had a doctor named Rau, R-A-U.
O'BRIEN: In his last moment, that name may have been as close as James Earl Ray ever came to the mysterious Raoul.
(on camera) Forty years later, it's still hard to believe that such a towering man of his time had his life ended by someone who was barely more than just a petty criminal.
We're often reluctant to recognize that great tragedy can arise from small and twisted minds. But that's what we believe happened to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., leaving all of America, black and white, with an everlasting loss.
I'm Soledad O'Brien at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Please join us throughout the year for our continuing coverage of "Black in America" on CNN and CNN.com.