20th Century's 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations

King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. ABC

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Two months before Robert Kennedy’s assassination, in April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed while at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was a key figure in the U.S. Civil Rights movement, a clergyman, and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Over time, a lot of controversy around his assassination has surfaced. On the one hand, the onset of the initial crime investigation led police to a petty thief and lifelong criminal, James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary. He was arrested on June 8, 1968, in London at Heathrow Airport, extradited to the United States, and charged with the crime.

In March 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to the assassination. His sentence was 99 years. Ray might have received a death sentence had the King family not been ardent supporters of peace. Physical evidence found at the crime scene include a rifle that had been shot at least one time. It, along with binoculars and other items, were coated in Ray’s fingerprints. It was more than enough evidence for a conviction, with or without a guilty plea.

The King family have stood in opposition to the conclusions offered by authorities. They believed the assassination was organized by the FBI, the CIA, the U.S. Army, and the Memphis Police Department and that James Earl Ray acted only as a scapegoat. This complex theory is far-fetched, yet not fully without merit. It gained attention on a large-scale when Loyd Jowers, a businessman from Memphis, went on television and announced that he, the Mafia, and United States government acted together to kill Dr. King.

The King family filed a lawsuit against Jowers and unnamed collaborators for the assassination. The suit implied government involvement but did not provide specific details. Despite this, the jury (six African-Americans and six whites) found Jowers and his unknown (government) co-defendants guilty as charged.

Because of Jowers’ inability to keep his story straight, each time he recollected, the past changed as did the characters involved. Jowers’ sister came forward to testify that her brother stood to make $300,000 by selling his version of the story to the press. She confessed, she agreed to lie and help him out because she could not pay her taxes and needed the cash.

James Earl Ray died in prison in 1998.