The Brother’s Tale 

John Larry Ray offers his account of the King assassination

It’s been 40 years since King was murdered, and James Earl Ray, officially his lone assassin, has been dead for a decade, yet many people—including the King family—feel the true story remains hidden.

Truth at Last: The Untold Story Behind James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. contains at least one absolutely undeniable assertion: “One of the reasons the truth has been successfully buried in this case is the sheer complexity of it. You need a highway map to help you understand the details.” Actually, that’s an understatement. The sizable cast of characters, complicated timeline of events and multiple conspiracy theories create a daunting mess from which to construct a plausible narrative. It’s been 40 years since King was murdered, and James Earl Ray, officially his lone assassin, has been dead for a decade, yet many people—including the King family—feel the true story remains hidden. In Truth at Last, James Earl Ray’s brother John Larry Ray has teamed up with King assassination investigator Lyndon Barsten to reveal what they claim are previously unknown elements of the case.

Although Barsten gets full credit as a co-author, this is John Larry Ray’s story, told in his voice. A former tavern owner who has spent much of his life in prison, Ray is not a skilled writer. The book is confusing and littered with extraneous details, but its main revelations come down to this: James Earl Ray was recruited by U.S. intelligence during his military service in Germany immediately after World War II. During that time, he was subjected to mind control techniques. He was also involved in the attempted murder of a black soldier named Washington, possibly as part of the brainwashing experiments. After he left the service, he took part in further psychological testing in Montreal in the 1950s. His incarceration in Missouri from 1960 to 1967 included a stint under psychiatric supervision—supposedly another opportunity for the feds to mess with his mind.

Ray insists that his brother had no direct role in Martin Luther King’s assassination. The point of all this brainwashing wasn’t to prepare James Earl Ray to kill King. The point was to groom James to be a sort of fall guy on retainer, a malleable dupe with a criminal record who could be put to use in any operation where such a person was needed. He was called into service in 1968 when the CIA and/or the FBI wanted to get rid of King. James, who had been on the run since a prison escape in April 1967, was led to Memphis by a government operative, the legendary “Raoul.” He had no knowledge of the plot to kill King and believed he was taking part in some more mundane crime. He fled the country after realizing he had been set up to take the fall for the assassination. Ray contends that James allowed himself to be arrested, believing that his government sponsors would arrange his release. Instead, he was coerced into pleading guilty and spent the rest of his life in prison, fighting for a trial.

Ray’s claim that his brother was subjected to attempts at mind control is not as implausible as it might seem. The CIA-sponsored MKULTRA experiments Ray discusses are well documented, and a mind-control research program was conducted in Montreal during the time that James was there. Ray, however, offers little hard evidence for his theory. There does seem to have been a mysterious change in James’ U.S. Army serial number that indicates an involvement with intelligence activity. Also, a well-known CIA operative, Fred Wilkinson, was in charge of the Missouri prison system during James’ incarceration. The rest of Ray’s case is conjecture, hearsay or his own unsupported recollection. He gives no actual evidence of the shooting of Washington—or even Washington’s existence. Ray claims the shooting was used to coerce his brother’s guilty plea, but it’s not mentioned at all in James’ own 1992 book, Who Killed Martin Luther King? In any case, it’s not clear how his shooting a black man in 1948 could buttress the claim that he didn’t shoot another one two decades later.

It’s also not unthinkable that elements within the U.S. government wanted King dead. The FBI had spied on and harassed King for years. No one disputes that he was under surveillance by intelligence operatives in Memphis. King is now our national saint, and it’s easy to forget how controversial he once was. By 1968 he was regarded as the voice of moderation on the race issue, but he had also become an eloquent, dangerously credible opponent of the Vietnam War. At the time of his death, he was leading the Poor People’s Campaign, which promoted a genuinely radical economic justice agenda. Ray is correct when he writes, “In the North and the South from Siren, Wisconsin, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, you would hear it said again and again, especially from whites: Martin Luther King was on the Commie payroll.” A government prepared to assassinate foreign leaders and engage in secret bombing campaigns in the name of fighting Communism surely wouldn’t balk at the idea of dispatching one irksome black preacher.

A plausible story, however, is not the same as a proven one, and Ray and Barsten simply don’t back up their story with any compelling proof. Much of the book is devoted to Ray’s complaints about the government’s attempts to silence anyone who might know the truth of the King assassination. Every heart attack or suicide looks suspiciously like murder, every criminal conviction—including his own—is a frame-up. It’s classic conspiracy theory ranting, and does nothing to strengthen his credibility. Nor does it get us any closer to knowing exactly who killed Martin Luther King, or why.

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