The more you get to know James Earl Ray, the more tragic it all feels. Martin Luther King, Jr., was everything Ray was not. Then, April 4, 1968, linked them together forever — fifty years ago today.
MLK had the courage to stand before massive crowds, knowing there were massive, violent conspiracies of hatred against him. Ray cowered in a locked bathroom behind a high-powered rifle.
MLK had the integrity to speak, march, and protest under his own name, no matter how despised he became. Ray hid behind a new alias everywhere he went: Eric Galt. Harvey Lowmeyer. Ramon Sneyd.
MLK had faith that even if he were to perish in the march toward progress, God would finish whatever good he was doing. Ray tried to take history into his own hands, believing a bullet could stop what was unfolding in Atlanta, Memphis, Washington, and around the world.
Martin Luther King continues to inspire and mobilize generations of men and women to stand and serve for change with courage, integrity, and conviction. James Earl Ray is remembered only as a footnote in King’s success and legacy. What James Earl Ray meant for evil — and it was indeed evil at every conceivable level — God has worked for good for the last fifty years. And it’s clear he’s not done turning that dark Ray of history into light.
What Killed King?
I recently relived the horror that unfolded on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel reading Hellbound on His Trail, Hampton Sides’s riveting and moving nonfiction narrative. Sides walks through the pressure-filled months leading up to King’s assassination, and then through the manhunt to find and arrest the shooter — a manhunt that took two whole months despite the FBI’s devoting every available resource. The book is thoroughly researched and phenomenally well written.
The decisive courtroom of heaven may eventually implicate the Memphis police, or white supremacist groups, or even the CIA and FBI in King’s assassination, but they will not vindicate Ray. Even if he was framed, he could be framed only because of the kind of evil he already had shown — convicted of burglary at 21, then of armed robbery, mail fraud, and theft, earning him twenty years in prison. He escaped after eight.
The evidence, while incomplete and mysterious, still overwhelmingly suggests Ray pulled the trigger, aiming to sever the spine of the blossoming Civil Rights Movement. He may have been recruited, helped, or even coerced, but all that we know fifty years later, despite massive efforts to prove otherwise, makes him the executioner.
Whether Ray acted alone, or as the pitiful pawn of a more sophisticated plot, the motive seems clear: cripple the inspiring and contagious movement for racial equality in America. Yes, King had made enemies by actively protesting the Vietnam War and by advocating for the poor. He was in Memphis on April 4, 1968, not only to stand for African Americans, but to march with underpaid garbage workers without benefits. He was focused in those days on planning his largest protest yet in Washington, D.C., “The Poor People’s Campaign.”
But Ray — a poor convict from a poor family who moved from one low-rent apartment to another in the poorest parts of town — was undoubtedly enraged not by King’s efforts to help the poor, but by all that he had accomplished for blacks in America.
Conspiracies in the Hands of God
Two thousand years before King was born, Peter and the apostles spoke with similar courage, integrity, and conviction before corruption in Jerusalem. “None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem” (Acts 5:13). Sounds a lot like what was happening fifty years ago in America, as King stood and preached for change in the name of Christ.
The apostles were thrown in prison for declaring what they had witnessed. The high priest charged them not to teach in Jesus’s name. Peter responded,
“We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:29–32)
The Conspiracy of conspiracies — man’s greatest effort to defy history — was a miserable subplot in God’s invincible plan. The religious elites thought they were drowning Christianity, but they had simply set it on fire.
In a similar way, James Earl Ray thought he was the bucket of water. In reality, he was gunpowder.
Assassinations in Futility
When the Jewish council heard Peter’s response, “they were enraged and wanted to kill them” (Acts 5:33). It’s hard to read that today and not see a smoldering Ray buying his high-powered hunting rifle under a fake name. But before they executed the apostle, a Pharisee spoke up and said,
“Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. . . . For if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:35, 38–39)
Gamaliel rehearsed the stories of two failed movements. Someone named Theudas had risen up, “claiming to be somebody” (probably to be the Messiah). But “he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing” (Acts 5:36). Likewise, Judas the Galilean emerged and led many astray, but “he too perished, and all who followed him were scattered” (Acts 5:37).
What was Gamaliel’s lesson? If a movement is merely formed in the ambition and imagination of men, it will die when the men die. But if it is a work of God, it will outlive us all — no matter how many bullets fly. Assassinations are violent exercises in futility. They almost always defeat themselves — catalyzing, rather than impeding, the opponents.
A Dream Within a Dream
King’s conviction and courage became a holy instrument in the hands of a sovereign God with an invincible plan to tear down racial and socioeconomic walls. As John Piper has said,
We don’t know if the world would have changed without him, but we do know he was a rod in the hand of the all-ruling God. Leave aside his theology and his moral flaws. They do not nullify the massive good God wrought through this man. He was used in the mighty hand of Providence to change the world so that the most appalling, blatant, degrading, public (and usually legal) expressions of racism have gone away.
MLK’s agenda was multifaceted and regularly evolving, but God’s plan was and is manifestly clear. He has a dream of his own, and his dreams always come true. He wielded the giftedness and influence of Martin Luther King — and strangely also the tragic hatred and cowardice of James Earl Ray — to further his purposes and exalt his Son. They are both part of a story that ends with us together — black and white, American and African, people from every continent, country, and social class — singing one song:
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9–10)
Fifty years of slow progress in America, while both significant and frustrating, is still but a wisp of what is to come.
James Earl Ray thought he was bringing down the Civil Rights Movement, but fifty years later, the cause has fresh life and passion. King’s followers were not dispersed or scattered, but unified and galvanized. Because the gospel, and only the gospel, achieves and inspires true racial equality and reconciliation, Ray was found not only on the wrong side of history, but at war with the King of kings.
What God Meant for Good
James Earl Ray died on April 23, 1998, thirty years after catalyzing King’s convictions and sealing his legacy.
King gave his life to a righteous cause. God worked good in and through this Christian preacher’s efforts to bring about good. Like the wicked kings in Revelation 17:17, Ray accomplished God’s purposes by opposing them. Like Satan at the cross, what tasted like victory in the moment proved to be his greatest nightmare — every ounce of deplorable evil suddenly and permanently hijacked for good. And every ounce of evil is now being punished under God’s perfect justice.
What James Earl Ray — or the Memphis police, or George Wallace supporters, or the mafia, or J. Edgar Hoover — meant for evil, God meant for great good. And for tens of thousands of Aprils to come, we will celebrate the good he has done in, and through, and after MLK.