Civil Rights Museum Adds New Displays
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Evidence pointing to James Earl Ray as Martin Luther King Jr.’s killer is going on display at the museum on the site of the civil rights leader’s murder.
The King family says a recent civil court verdict supporting their belief that Ray was an unknowing fall guy in a murder conspiracy will be mentioned too.
But the evidence against Ray — much of which has been locked away in storage for more than three decades — is expected to dominate the museum’s newest exhibit.
“There are not going to be theories about who killed Martin Luther King presented. What we will present [are] pieces of evidence that will help people evaluate the various theories,” says Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University history professor working on the project.
With the new exhibit, Ray’s rifle will go on public display for the first time and museum visitors will get a view of the murder scene from the “flop house” at which Ray waited before firing the deadly bullet.
Investigations by a congressional committee in 1978 and by state prosecutors in Memphis two years ago concluded Ray was the killer, though he may have had help from a small group of conspirators. His confession was upheld eight times by state and federal courts. The investigations found no evidence of the widespread conspiracy involving the government and organized crime that the King family believes in.
“The most reasonable story is [Ray] had to be involved in it,” Carson says. “The question is … whether other people had foreknowledge of it. That’s where it gets a lot more complicated.”
The National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 1991 at the old Lorraine Motel, is working on an expansion that will double its exhibit space to 25,000 square feet next year.
The flophouse where Ray rented a room across a small side street from the Lorraine will become part of the museum.
King was shot while standing on the second-floor balcony of the motel on April 4, 1968. He was in Memphis to help lead a garbage workers strike.
The museum traces America’s struggle for racial equality up to the time of King’s death, focusing heavily on the 1950s and 1960s.
New exhibits will continue the story of the civil rights movement to the present, and for the first time, the museum will offer information on the assassination itself. All the new material is expected to be on display by next year.
A jury hearing a wrongful death suit filed by the King family against a former Memphis restaurant owner concluded last December that King was the victim of a murder conspiracy involving government agents and other “unknown conspirators.”
While the verdict was what the King family had long wanted, critics described the trial as a hodgepodge of vague conspiracy claims and unsupported testimony that offered little new information on the killing.
“[Ray] was definitely not vindicated,” says Beverly Robertson, the museum’s director.
Carson says the trial verdict will be “mentioned” but what part it will play in the new exhibit has yet to be decided.
The state plans to give the museum the physical evidence and investigative reports that would have been used against Ray had he gone to trial. He died in prison in 1998.
Those items are expected to go to the museum when the Justice Department finishes a new, limited investigation into the murder this year. Information on that investigation will be part of the museum exhibit too.
Evidence gathered during the original police investigation includes the rifle identified as the murder weapon, personal belongings of Ray’s found at the flophouse, autopsy and lab reports, and other such items.
The expansion also will allow visitors to check out the view of the Lorraine from the flophouse.
“A lot of people sort of think it was a pretty far distance, but from the back of that building you can see it really didn’t take an expert marksman to hit the target,” Robinson says.
Carson says the Kings’ lawsuit failed to change his general view on Ray’s part in the murder largely because the burden of proof in a civil trial is much less than that required in a criminal case.
“You’re not asking the jury to come to a decision about what actually did happen on April 4. They would still be in the jury room,” he says. “You’re just asking them, are you convinced by the official story of what happened … and they said no.”
— Baird is an Associated Press writer
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