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Martin Luther King Jr.
On April 4, 2018, the country marked a significant yet somber anniversary.
It had been 50 years since civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the second-floor balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. King was there to support the city’s striking black sanitation workers, who were demanding better pay and working conditions.
This national tragedy came with local infamy, as Alton native James Earl Ray was identified as the lone assassin.
Most grownups knows the story of King’s life and legacy. The path leading to his legacy has been shared and documented throughout history since these five decades have passed.
In a recent op-ed piece for The Guardian, Michael Honey perhaps summarized King’s legacy best: “People know him as a civil rights advocate, but he also waged a lifelong struggle for economic justice and the empowerment of poor and working-class people of all colors. Beyond his dream of civil and voting rights lay a demand that every person have adequate food, education, housing, a decent job and income.
“It might help us to realize that King’s moral discourse about the gap between ‘the haves and the have-nots’ resulted from his role in the labor movement as well as in the civil rights movement,” Honey wrote. “How we remember King matters.”
James Earl Ray’s back story is perhaps lesser-known than King’s.
Ray was born in a home in the 1000 block of West Ninth Street in Alton on March 10, 1928. He was the eldest of George and Lucille Ray’s nine children. When Ray enrolled in first grade at St. Mary’s in Alton, the family lived on Seventh Street. Before the school year was up, the family left Alton and moved to Ewing, Mo., to avoid Ray’s father being arrested on a forgery charge.
At 16, Ray dropped out of school and returned to Alton, where he moved in with his grandmother in the 500 block of East Broadway. He landed a job at Hartford’s International Shoe Tannery. Laid off in 1945, Ray enlisted in the Army but was later discharged. He returned to Alton.
Over the next several years, Ray committed several small crimes. In 1959, while on parole for an earlier theft, he robbed two St. Louis grocery stores and one in Alton. It was reported he made away with close to $2,000 from the former Wegener’s Grocery at 901 Alby St.
He received a 20-year sentence for those crimes and was incarcerated at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, but he escaped in 1967. He first fled to Canada but later returned to the United States.
On July 13, 1967, Ray and a brother were said to have robbed the Bank of Alton at 1520 Washington Ave. Per 1988 reports, the Rays made away with more than $27,000 from the facility now known as U.S. Bank.
In the 1992 book Ray wrote while in prison for the assassination of King, he refuted being involved in this robbery, claiming to have been set up. An argument of conspiracy was born.
Who really killed Dr. King?
Claims of conspiracy theories surfaced many times in Ray’s life, including when convicted for King’s assassination. Ray claimed he was set up as a part of a government conspiracy to take out King by then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
In a 1969 Associated Press story by Bernard Gauzer, King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., was quoted as saying, “No one man took my son’s life. It’s going to be proven. I don’t care what anyone says. I know.”
Other civil rights leaders, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, have said they believe Ray took part in the assassination, but that he did not act alone. A 1978 congressional committee concurred, indicating in its own report that it was unlikely Ray acted alone.
King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and son Dexter have both said they believe Ray was innocent.
Whatever the exact details were that led Ray to Memphis on April 4, 1968, it has been determined that Ray stood in the bathtub of a shared bathroom at a boarding house near the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, balanced his rifle on a window ledge, and fatally shot King.
Immediately after, Ray fled, leading to a manhunt lasting more than two months and covering five countries. The FBI caught up with Ray in July 1968 in London, extraditing him to Memphis.
Ray pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison, a confession he would later recant. His sentence was extended by a year after a failed prison escape attempt in 1977.
Ray died at a hospital in Nashville, Tenn., on April 23, 1998. He was cremated; his ashes were scattered in Ireland. It had been 30 years since he had fired the single shot that silenced the powerful voice of one of the most influential civil rights leaders.
50 years later: The aftermath
The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change hosted a series of events during the days surrounding the somber 50th anniversary, including the March for Humanity on April 9 in Atlanta.
At the march, Rev. Bernice King recalled her father as a great orator whose message of peaceful protest was still vital. Martin Luther King III also addressed marchers, saying, “There’s something wrong in our nation where a minimum of 48 million people are living in poverty. That’s unacceptable. We must do better. America should be embarrassed about having people living in poverty.”
In a phone interview, Alton’s Lee Barham talked about the aftermath of King’s assassination 50 years later. Reflecting on the local impact of King’s legacy and Ray’s infamy, Barham simply stated, “Good and evil. It’s what makes Alton famous, and infamous.
“To answer the question of whether Dr. King had died in vain, my reply is yes,” Barham said. “Some people may not like that, but it’s true. The bitter truth is what we need to focus on.”
“What has changed? The answer is nothing,” he added. “We’re still protesting. A white police officer shoots a black person and we protest. But where is the outcry when we shoot each other? And after all the protesting, after all the shouting, what is the end game? We need to talk to each other, instead of at each other.”
In January, at a program to observe MLK Day at Lewis and Clark Community College, college professor Dr. Mumba Mumba said she believed Dr. King embodied the concept of nonviolent civil rights protest movements.
“We hope that reflections of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words will continue to serve as a call to action for each of us to be champions of justice, equality and love,” Mumba said. “He used powerful words to change the world. And we can learn from what he did.”
Observing MLK50 Forward
The Alton branch of the NAACP will soon host its 50th annual Freedom Fund Banquet. Starting at 6 p.m. Saturday, May 5, in the Atrium at Best Western Premier Hotel in Alton, the evening will feature former San Diego Chargers tight end and Hall of Fame inductee Kellen Winslow Sr. as its keynote speaker.
“Our theme this year is After 50 Years, the Journey Continues: Let’s Do More,” Alton NAACP President Andy Hightower said. “It’s ironic that the Alton NAACP’s 50th dinner coincides with the 50-year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.”