Killing a Dream

Author’s note: The purpose of this series is to explore the technical details behind some of history’s most infamous assassinations, not to precipitate rancorous political discourse. I find these stories darkly fascinating and hope you do as well. However, don’t infer any deeper political messages. Thanks.

Born into poverty and the son of a criminal, this man’s life was surrounded by chaos from the beginning.

The man was born in Alton, Illinois, in March of 1928. Seven years later his father, who went by the nickname Speedy, had to skip town with his family leaving behind a trail of bad checks. After dropping out of school at fifteen the young man eventually joined the Army and served in post-WW2 Germany. By the time he was twenty, he had been discharged for lack of adaptability and general ineptitude.

A childhood bully, criminal activity characterized his earliest days.

He saw his first criminal conviction, a California burglary, at age 21 and served two of the next three years behind bars. Mail fraud, the armed robbery of a Kroger supermarket, and sundry other offenses subsequently secured him a twenty-year sentence in another state. In 1967 he escaped the Missouri State Penitentiary by hiding in a truck that was transporting bread from the prison bakery.

Affordable and available, the Ford Mustang was and is America’s sports car.

America in 1967 was an analog society. It was much easier to thrive off the grid back then than it is the case today. Now nearing forty and a seasoned con, the man traveled widely across the US and Canada. He eventually bought a white 1966 Ford Mustang and secured an Alabama driver’s license. He settled in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for a time.

By the age of forty, the man had sampled careers ranging from bartending to porn directing.

Using mail-ordered photographic equipment and local Mexican prostitutes as the talent the man embarked on a brief career as a pornographic film director. Failing at that he returned to the US, took dancing lessons, and attended Bartending School. It was at this point that the man began to take a serious interest in politics.

Martin Luther King Jr was one of the most influential and controversial figures in American history.

In the spring of 1968, he secured a room in an Atlanta boarding house. An avid reader, he happened upon an article in the Atlanta Constitution that outlined the coming itinerary for civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. Equipped with this tactical information, the career criminal and perennial loser James Earl Ray loaded up his Mustang and made a quick trek to Alabama.

The pump-action Remington 760 was a postwar deer rifle pure and simple.

Using the alias Harvey Lowmeyer, Ray purchased a pump-action Remington 760 Gamemaster .243 rifle along with a Redfield 2-7X scope from the Aeromarine Supply Company in Birmingham. Amidst concerns regarding the weapon’s stopping power, he exchanged the .243 for the same gun in .30-06. He also left with a single twenty-round box of Remington Peters soft point ammunition.

Bessie Brewer’s boarding house on South Main Street in Memphis, Tennessee, backed up to the Lorraine Motel.

Thusly equipped, Ray struck out for Memphis, Tennessee. His white 66 Mustang ate up the miles in an afternoon. On April 4, 1968, he was set up in a back room of Bessie Brewer’s boarding house facing the Lorraine Motel.

The Shooting

The balcony behind room 306 was a popular spot for socializing when Martin Luther King Jr was in town.

King and his entourage were in Memphis to support a strike by local African-American sanitation workers. He had stayed in the Lorraine Motel many times before. Ralph Abernathy, a close King associate, later testified that they had used Room 306 so frequently that it was informally referred to as the “King-Abernathy Suite.” At 6:01 pm Martin Luther King Jr leaned against the railing outside his room speaking with associates.

The most accessible portion of the boarding house that offered a clear line of sight and privacy was the communal bathroom.

207 feet away and at a slightly higher elevation James Earl Ray perched in the communal restroom of the boarding house, the barrel of his scoped rifle resting on the windowsill.

Running a rifle from this odd vantage required some uncomfortable contortion.

To obtain the appropriate vantage, Ray had to stand contorted in the bathtub. The single Remington Peters copper-jacketed soft point bullet he fired struck King in the face an inch to the right of the midline and half an inch below his mouth.

The single round fired by Ray was incontrovertibly fatal.

This high-performance hunting round shattered the man’s jaw and exited underneath his chin before re-entering his neck, tearing off his necktie in the process. From there it tracked downward, shattering several cervical vertebrae and destroying the critical vasculature in the right aspect of the neck. The deformed bullet came to rest in his back to the left of the midline.

Despite heroic measures at the hospital, King’s wound was unsurvivable.

Dr. King was rushed to St Joseph’s hospital where his chest was opened and cardiopulmonary resuscitation attempted. He never regained consciousness and died sixty-three minutes after the shooting. At the time of his passing Martin Luther King Jr was 39 years old.

The Gun

This is the Remington 760 rifle used by James Earl Ray during the assassination.

The pump-action Remington 760 saw production from 1952 until 1980.

The flush-fitting magazine holds four rounds and is common to both the pump-action 760 and the gas-operated 742.

Available in twelve different calibers and feeding from a four-round detachable box magazine, the 760 was designed with a singular purpose–to put venison on the table.

During World War 2 Remington was occupied making combat weapons like this M1911A1 pistol.

During World War 2 Remington converted its production capacity solely to the manufacture of military weapons. After the war, it was found that wartime mass production techniques did not well accommodate Remington’s pre-war pantheon of firearms. This led to a transformation of Big Green’s product catalog.

The common family lineage between rifles like the 760 and this Model 870 shotgun is obvious.

Remington’s post-war lineup reflected industrial lessons learned during the conflict. Common design features and similar production requirements drove guns like the 11-48, 870, and 1100 shotguns to share many common components with the 740 and 760 rifles. Like the famous Remington shotguns, the 760 featured dual action bars and a removable aluminum trigger module.

The bolt of the Remington Model 760 rifle incorporated a complex interrupted thread locking system.

The bolt was cut with fourteen locking lugs that interfaced with the barrel extension via an interrupted thread. The design was later simplified into the Model 7600 featuring more conventional lugs.

The basic 760 rifle was available in a variety of configurations.

Variations included sundry finishes, sights, and stock styles. The magazine-fed design necessitated the use of Spitzer (pointed) bullets. Just over one million copies were produced.

The Shooter

James Earl Ray’s escape led to one of the largest manhunts in American history up to that time.

James Earl Ray was tainted with a criminal’s constitution essentially from birth. He immediately fled the scene in his Mustang, abandoning the gun in a bag in front of Canipe’s Amusement Company on South Main Street near Bessie Brewer’s boarding house. Inside the bag was also found a recent copy of the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper, a bottle of aftershave lotion, a pair of binoculars, a portable radio, and two cans of Schlitz beer. The identifying number on the radio had been removed, but it was ultimately determined to have been the same radio James Earl Ray had kept in his cell in the Missouri Pen prior to his escape.

The evidence against Ray as the shooter was compelling.

Ray’s fingerprints were found on all of the items. No other identifiable fingerprints were lifted from the rifle or scope. A physical description of the man who dropped the parcel from a white Mustang in front of Canipe’s Amusement Company matched that of Ray.

Ray was fleeing for an African nation still under white control when he was apprehended. He nearly made it.

Leaving Memphis, Ray drove eleven hours straight back to Atlanta where he abandoned his car and gathered some clothing. He then fled to Canada and later on to England. Two months after the shooting he was apprehended in London’s Heathrow Airport attempting to gain passage to Rhodesia using a false Canadian passport. He was immediately extradited to Memphis to stand trial.

James Earl Ray’s subsequent three-day escape from custody in 1977 was sensationalized in the media.

On the advice of his lawyer, Ray pled guilty to the murder to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Within a few days, he recanted his confession and claimed an enigmatic man named Raul whom he had met in Canada had done the shooting. Ray escaped from the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, in 1977 but was apprehended three days later. He died in prison in 1998 at age seventy of kidney disease and liver failure secondary to hepatitis C. He apparently contracted the disease from a blood transfusion he received after being stabbed in prison many years before. Ray maintained his innocence until his death, blaming his incarceration on a sweeping government conspiracy.

The Victim

Martin Luther King Jr has been described as one of the greatest orators in American history.

The life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr has been well documented. Despite his untimely death, he was one of the most influential figures in American history.

King has been venerated around the world. This statue stands in Westminster Abbey in London.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King’s statue graces Westminster Abbey in London.

King left several young children after his death.

He left behind a wife and four children.

For all have sinned…those looking for heroes without blemish among human stock are destined for disappointment.

Vilified by some and deified by most, Dr. King had his warts as do us all. Parts of his doctoral thesis were plagiarized, and he was a serial philanderer. If you dig deep enough you can find dirt on quite literally anybody. Reagan, Patton, Washington, JFK, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa all had skeletons in their closets.

Dr. King’s policy of non-violence kept the civil rights movement of the 1960s much less bloody than might otherwise have been the case.

What made Martin Luther King Jr a truly extraordinary historical figure was his insistence on non-violent resistance as a means to enact sweeping social change. Given the dark and chaotic nature of the world in the 1960s this was, in my opinion, the man’s greatest attribute. Dr. King’s legacy will shape the conversation about race in America until the sun burns out.

Denouement

Contradictory theories still abound concerning the death of Martin Luther King Jr. As recently as 1999 a court case found that there had been governmental complicity in his killing, a charge that government officials both then and now vehemently deny.

Dr. Martin Luther King was a controversial figure, and allegations of government cover-ups and conspiracies yet unresolved swirl around his life even today. I came of age in the Mississippi Delta in the 1970s and saw firsthand the foundational social changes wrought by his movement, his life, and his death.

The assassination of Dr. King led to widespread violence that was, thankfully, fairly short-lived.

Human beings are by their nature tribal, and racial discord has been a lamentable part of the human condition since the dawn of time. While Dr. King’s assassination sparked riots in more than 100 major American cities, his legacy of non-violence represents a timeless ideal all would do well to emulate.

The site of the King assassination is part of the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis today.

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About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Bert M September 16, 2019, 7:16 pm

    Since you preface all your articles as being about the firearm and not the event …., the photos in this article seemingly indicate you view the WWII M1911A1 .45 pistol as having been made by Remington Arms, the same company that made the rifle used by James Earl Ray. That is incorrect. The WWII .45 pistols were made by Remington Rand, a typewriter company with no previous experience in the manufacture of firearms. Though Remington Rand had it’s origins some 60 years prior to WWII as a subsidiary of Remington Arms, by the time WWII began Remington Rand had long been a separate company with no affiliation to Remington Arms. This is an easily made error because of the similarity of the name, but not one I would expect from an author who is supposedly a firearms aficionado.

  • Dan F September 10, 2019, 5:01 pm

    Let me guess you support Trump who is a well-known adulterer and sexual assaulter, has bilked hundreds of people out of pay for honest work, and lies every time he opens his mouth.

    • tony petres September 19, 2019, 1:23 pm

      Let me guess. You support Democratic socialists who, aside from pledging to undue all the gains Trump has brought us, also support gun confiscation. You probably voted for Hillary, a woman who still blames everyone but herself for losing the 2016 election. You probably supported the Democratic witch hunt which centered on an attempted coup by Democratically appointed government officials. It must be a bitch to be you.

  • Mike Watkins September 10, 2019, 2:08 am

    Good article, Dr. Dabbs! Thanks!

    I don’t believe any of the conspiracy theories. I believe James Earl was a little man with little thoughts, and among those thoughts was the idea that some people, for instance those darker than him, should not get out of line and get uppity and try to be as good as anyone else.

    And then little James Earl decided maybe he should be the big man for a while, and do the great thing of showing those uppity persons of darker skin that they just needed to stay in their place. I believe little James Earl probably talked to other little men about this kind of idea, but I really believe he didn’t need anyone to plot or plan or push him to do the deed.

    Frikkin’ shame he did it, because I believe it changed the history of this Nation. Whatever Martin Luther King Jr’s. faults might have been, he was teaching people that we can change things without picking up a gun, or a brick, or a Molotov cocktail. A .30-06 round made a lot of people decide to hell with it! grab the damn gun, or brick, or Molotov cocktail!

    I think it is entirely possible, without little James Earl Ray’s bullet and the riots that followed, there would now be far less racial animosity and far fewer young black men saying, “There ain’t no use in tryin’! Just get a gun and shoot someone!”

    But maybe I’m wrong, and if it hadn’t been little James Earl, it would have been some other little man.

  • John Silvey September 9, 2019, 4:24 pm

    Historically fascinating story … I absolutely support racial equality – doesn’t matter what a man’s color or background is – as long as he is a good, honest human being, tries his best, and pulls his weight in/contributes to society as a whole to the best of his abilities. For those who don’t (welfare leeches), they have no place in society.

  • Mikial September 9, 2019, 2:10 pm

    Excellent article. Well written and factual. I especially enjoyed the technical aspects and the nonpartisan approach.

  • MDinKS September 9, 2019, 2:10 pm

    Dr.Dabbs, thank you for your military and medical service, as well as walking the walk of a conservative way of life. While this article was very well written, I have mixed feelings about its utility with the target audience here. Why not just a 4-part single article about “Assassination Guns” (Lincoln, JFK, RFK, MLK), & leave it at that? All the buildup inly builds the human side, & tension, yet we all know how it ends. The description of the bullet’s anatomical destruction has left me wondering the utility of that, precisely after including the human side? The only thing missing would have been a cartoonish, slo-mo, moment of impact showing the projectile/fragment path(s)—like the old xbox ww2 sniper game vignettes “streets of Schoneberg” or “Oberplatz”. My point is this audience knows what happens when bullet choice, caliber choice, and shot placement will result in, on a living target in question. Ive been a staunch Constitutional & fiscal conservative my entire adult life, & recall the hot debates in the 80s about .45 vs 9mm. Ballistically, the “expected” result happened to MLKjr when struck in the head/neck by a .3006 at 70yds. Been a long time ww2 historian, but speaking as an MD, yes I do wonder what ultimately caused the demise of all those dead US, German, Russian soldiers we see sprawled out in old b&w pictures. Shrapnel? Blast? Well-placed bullet? I can think analytically about those, as they are nameless unkowns to me, but the minute we start adding life details, we’ve humanized it, making harder wade through the story. How many times do you think an urban-area sniper death happened in the 5month long battle of Stalingrad? But this article, to me, only sensationalizes that same sniper scenario, because the victim was a famous person. It was counterproductive to cool scientific analytical ballistic analysis, to put name & story to the target. Your emphasis was more about shooter vs victim, with an interlude about the gun, which is far less analytically interesting compared to military actions such as Stalingrad or Chris Kyle’s experiences.

  • archie brown September 9, 2019, 1:57 pm

    I grew up in the 50’s/60’s. All I heard was that MLK was a troublemaker and believed it. I’m 70 now and have learned a lot about all kinds of people from working with them. King said it best-you judge a person by their character and he was right. But we have all sinned and come short. That’s what grace is about.

  • Dave Brown September 9, 2019, 12:22 pm

    67 year old white guy, gunner all my life, no longer belong to The NRA as they ain’t much anymore, yet they use to attract kids like me into the sport at age 12. I won’t go into my Indian Friends, nor how many new colored friends I have made just this year, but lets say I Am Color Blind. Yet my colored friends have a little dislike towards White Me, but they like me all the same as I do them………. Simple A Man Killed A Man way back then, and That Ain’t Right. Please be Color and Party Blind, Free Ur Mind, and join US. If u don’t like them, u sure ain’t gonna like this white man…………….

  • Dave September 9, 2019, 9:59 am

    Thank you Dr. Dabbs for this wonderful article. It’s very well written, informative, and obviously well-researched. And I love the photographs that you put in here.
    However, thank you to Chris Costner for the link to the Judge Brown interview. I live about an hour from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and thought I knew the story of their most famous inmate. I had never heard this interview before though and it really surprise me.

  • GrampyTom September 9, 2019, 9:36 am

    This event was engineered an executed by the same people that brought you the event in Dallas. Both “assasins” were cultivated in a pool that has been maintained by the government from which it draws the tools for its social engineering mission. That pool is peopled with the easily manipulated losers that will be used as assasins, mass shooters, terrorists and any other kind of miscreant that the government needs to act so it can pass laws that would otherwise be rejected by a freedom loving population. It is easy to hide the truth……in plain sight. They just have to realease a number of plausible stories, including the truth, and then call them all conspiracy theories. That way they will all be dismissed by the majority and each will have a minotity of supporters seen as nuts by all the others who support their own particular government seeded theory. Government is a dirty business. That is why the founders wished to limit its scope and power with the now ignored or manipulated Constitution. Government has grown out of the control of the people. It is the cancer that has destroyed the United States. It is in stage four and has grown too large to cut out. We must be patient and wait for this iteration of a free country to finally expire and hope that there are enough good people to start over…….with a constitution the will have safeguards built in that don’t depend on the elusive goodness in humans.

  • Thomas Jefferson September 9, 2019, 7:03 am

    Release the FBI tapes NOW. They were sealed for the benefit of his Coretta Scott “King” in order for her to avoid the obvious embarrassment she would feel having the truth in the public domain. The “GOD-WORSHIP” of this adulterer, philanderer and plagiarizer is sickening.

    • Lee T Macon September 9, 2019, 8:19 am

      What is sickening is the hate that certain people still hold against this man even in death.

    • Mike in a Truck September 9, 2019, 11:47 am

      The 760/ 7600 series are my big game favorite rifle. Goes right along with the 870/1100 also. And let’s not forget Remingtons pump action 22- My favorite rifle in the world!

    • Trevally September 9, 2019, 5:07 pm

      Absolutely!

  • Chris Costner September 9, 2019, 6:25 am

    Judge Joe Brown was the last person to handle this event. Listen to what he has to say…

    https://youtu.be/HcJ_szc3TEA

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