Never before has the path of James Earl Ray and its convergence with Dr. Martin Luther King been so thoroughly examined as in "American Experience: Roads To Memphis." This two hour documentary recreates the roads these two men took which led them to be in close proximity on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Through newsreel footage, interviews, re-enactments and other methods we see and hear from King as he wages his non-violent war against racism. Meanwhile James Earl Ray is on the road to being a small time crook who has dreams of grandeur. Already convicted of robbery, Ray is serving time in the Missouri State Penitentiary. He hears talk about Martin Luther King and thinks there is big money to be made by assassinating him.
Ray is a clever man and he finds a way to escape from the prison. Once out he begins his adventure that will lead him to Martin Luther King. He becomes convinced he will be serving all of his fellow whites, as well as influential ones like Governor George Wallace, by killing King.
King appears to have had a premonition about his death as the night before he is assassinated he gives the "I've Been To the Mountaintop" speech which actually addresses his possible death. It is eerie to hear the words he spoke knowing what is to happen the next day.
This documentary interviews some of King's closest associates such as Benjamin Hooks, Andrew Young and Roger Wilkins. They give an intimate view of King the man and of his mental state during these days of turmoil. There is also commentary provided by news anchor Dan Rather who covered the story for CBS. We also get viewpoints from authors Gerald Posner and Hampton Sides.
Ray comes across as a man who wanted to be famous for being a killer. He thought that would give him glory and in the end it did. One of his goals was to be on the FBI's "Top Ten List" of Wanted Criminals. After he assassinated Dr. King he achieved that goal.
When James Earl Ray was tried for King's murder he confessed to the crime. Later he recanted his confession and claimed he was innocent. This documentary shows there is little doubt that the right man was convicted.
"American Experience: Roads To Memphis" airs on PBS, Monday, May 3 at 9PM.
Jackie K. Cooper