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James Earl Ray is best known for assassinating civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
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James Earl Ray was born in Alton, Illinois, on March 10, 1928. A confirmed racist and small-time criminal, Ray began plotting the assassination of revered civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in early 1968. He shot and killed King in Memphis on April 4, 1968, confessing to the crime the following March. Ray died in prison on April 23, 1998.
"I had nothing to do with killing [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.]."
Born on March 10, 1928, in Alton, Illinois, James Earl Ray was the eldest of George and Lucille Ray's eight children. The Rays struggled to make ends meet, and as a consequence the family moved several times during the early part of Ray's childhood.
A part of his life was shaped by tragedy. In 1935 the family suddenly left Alton and relocated to Ewing, Missouri, after police had started looking for Ray's father on a forgery charge. Two years later, his young sister Mary died in a fire after playing with matches and accidently catching herself on fire.
At the age of 16 Ray left his parents and returned to Alton, where he moved in with his grandmother and landed work in the dye room of the International Shoe Tannery.
After getting laid off in 1945, Ray enlisted in the Army, eventually getting stationed in West Germany. But he found it difficult to adapt to the military's strict codes of conduct. He was charged with drunkenness and breaking arrest, before getting discharged for ineptness and lack of adaptability in 1948.
Ray's life outside the Army proved even less stable. After returning to Alton and moving back in with his grandmother, he blazed through a number of odd jobs. In 1949 he left for Los Angeles, where in October of that year police arrested him for robbing a cafe. He was sentenced to 90 days in prison, but the lockup did little to reform him.
Over the next several years, Ray embarked on a number of small crimes, serving various jail times. The most serious of those came in 1959, when Ray, on parole for an earlier theft, robbed two St. Louis grocery stores, as well as another in Alton. In March 1960 Ray started a 20-year sentence for the crimes.
Housed at the Missouri State Penitentiary, Ray managed to escape the facility in 1967. He at first fled to Canada but, unable to get on a ship and flee overseas, he returned to the U.S. and made his way to first Alabama, then Mexico, and later Los Angeles.
Exactly what led James Earl Ray to kill Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continues to be a source of debate, as does his role in the murder. Evidence does suggest that Ray had little stomach for the integration policies that were sweeping the country. In addition to his segregationist beliefs, he also saw a big payday, some historians have said, in killing black leaders like H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and, of course, King.
Whatever the exact details were that led him to Memphis in April 1968, Ray rented a room at a rooming house under the name John Willard, near the Lorraine Motel, where King was staying.
On April 4, 1968, Ray stood in the bathtub of a shared bathroom, balanced his rifle on a window ledge and shot King as the civil rights leader was standing on a balcony outside of his motel room.
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These individuals have etched their names into history by plotting and executing the murders of prominent people. Whether their motivations were political, obsessive, or just plain insane, their high-profile murders earn them fame, fear and revulsion from the public. John Wilkes Booth shocked the nation when he assassinated Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater, James Earl Ray's assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was a tragic chapter in the civil rights struggle. See our picks, along with full biographies, photo galleries and videos, of these and other infamous assassins, who changed the course of history in the most brutal of ways.
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