Monday, April 4, 2011

"Newly found documents shed light on MLK's convicted killer"

Forged Canadian passport used by James Earl Ray, who was apprehended at Heathrow Airport in London on June 8, 1968 and extradited shortly afterward. Image courtesy of the Shelby County, Tennessee Register of Deeds.

I was perusing CNN's Web site this weekend, and the above headline jumped out at me; looking for records-related news is one of the occupational hazards of being an archivist and one of the chief avocational hazards of being an archivist blogger. I clicked the link, and my curiosity was amply rewarded.

Forty-three years ago today, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was slain in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was lending his support to striking sanitation workers. James Earl Ray was apprehended approximately two months after the shooting and ultimately entered a guilty plea in order to avoid undergoing a jury trial.

Until recently, little was known about Ray's state of mind in the months following his arrest or the inner workings of the investigations into King's murder. However, several years ago, staff from the Shelby County, Tennessee Register of Deeds who were processing unidentified materials in the Shelby County Archives found a large bundle of photographs, documents, and other materials relating to Ray, who later recanted his confession and unsuccessfully sought a jury trial.

All of these materials -- crime scene photographs, letters between Ray and members of his family, audio files, court records, and records of local, state, and federal prosecutors and law enforcement agencies -- have been digitized and are now accessible via the Web site of the Shelby County Register of Deeds.

These records have a broader context that is reflected in the rich holdings of King Collection at Morehouse College, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Archive at Boston University, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University -- and in countless collections that document the lives and work of civil rights activists and white supremacists, slaveowners, abolitionists, and slaves, and countless other Americans of all races, ethnicities, religions, and social and political beliefs.

These materials nonetheless add significantly to our understanding of the environment in which Martin Luther King, Jr. lived and worked, our knowledge of the man who was convicted of murdering him, and our understanding of how the police and the courts dealt with a murder that had a profound and lasting impact upon American society. (And to think that people -- including those who really should know better -- sometimes assume local government records are dull or inconsequential!) Thanks to Shelby County Register of Deeds Tom Leatherwood and his staff for devoting a lot of time, effort, and resources to making these important records widely available.

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