James Earl Ray pleads guilty to King assassination James Earl Ray pleads guilty to the assassination of African American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and is sentenced to 99 years in prison. On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, King was fatally wounded by a sniper’s bullet while standing on the balcony outside his second-story room at the Motel Lorraine. That evening, a Remington .30-06 hunting rifle was found on the sidewalk beside a rooming house one block from the Lorraine Motel. Over the next several weeks, the rifle, eyewitness reports, and fingerprints on the weapon all implicated a single suspect: escaped convict James Earl Ray. A two-bit criminal, Ray escaped a Missouri prison in April 1967 while serving a sentence for a holdup. In May 1968, a massive manhunt for Ray began. The FBIeventually determined that he had obtained a Canadian passport under a false identity, which at the time was relatively easy. On June 8, Scotland Yard investigators arrested Ray at a London airport. Ray was trying to fly to Belgium, with the eventual goal, he later admitted, of reaching Rhodesia. Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe, was at the time ruled by an oppressive and internationally condemned white minority government. Extradited to the United States, Ray stood before a Memphis judge in March 1969 and pleaded guilty to King’s murder in order to avoid the electric chair. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Three days later, he attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming that he was innocent of King’s assassination and had been set up as a patsy in a larger conspiracy. He claimed that in 1967 a mysterious man named “Raoul” had approached him and recruited him into a gunrunning enterprise. On April 4, 1968, however, he realized that he was to be the fall guy for the King assassination and fled for Canada. Ray’s motion was denied, as were his dozens of other requests for a trial over the next 29 years. During the 1990s, the widow and children of Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke publicly in support of Ray and his claims, calling him innocent and speculating about an assassination conspiracy involving the U.S. government and military. U.S. authorities were, in conspiracists’ minds, implicated circumstantially. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover obsessed over King, who he thought was under communist influence. For the last six years of his life, King underwent constant wiretapping and harassment by the FBI. Before his death Dr. King was also monitored by U.S. military intelligence, who may have been called to watch over King after he publicly denounced the Vietnam War in 1967. Furthermore, by calling for radical economic reforms in 1968, including guaranteed annual incomes for all, King was making few new friends in the Cold War-era U.S. government. Over the years, the assassination has been reexamined by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the Shelby County, Tennessee, district attorney’s office, and three times by the U.S. Justice Department. All of these investigations have ended with the same conclusion: James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King. The House committee acknowledged that a low-level conspiracy might have existed, involving one or more accomplices to Ray, but uncovered no evidence to definitively prove this theory. In addition to the mountain of evidence against him, such as his fingerprints on the murder weapon and admitted presence at the rooming house on April 4, Ray had a definite motive in assassinating King: hatred. According to his family and friends, he was an outspoken racist who told them of his intent to kill Martin Luther King. He died in 1998. 1792 The Right Honourable John Stuart, 3rd earl of Bute, dies On this day in 1792, John Stuart, 3rd earl of Bute and advisor to the British king, George III, dies in London. Although most Americans have never heard his name, Lord Bute played a significant role in the politics of the British empire that spawned the American Revolution. A wealthy Scottish noble, educated at the prestigious Eton College and University of Leiden, Bute became Prince George’s tutor in 1755. He also befriended George’s mother, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, the dowager princess of Wales. This relationship, although never proven to be sexual, resulted in a tremendous scandal when it was written about by radical English pamphleteer John Wilkes. Wilkes abhorred Bute and named his newspaper North Briton, a synonym for Scot, as a direct reference, and insult, to Bute’s Scottish origins. Prince George became King George III in 1760, while Britain was in the midst of the Seven Years’ War with France. The king, along with Bute, who was now his advisor, worried that the tremendous expense of the war in North America and around the world would drive Britain to bankruptcy. William Pitt, whose military strategy and political finesse had transformed the American branch of the war, known as the French and Indian War, from disaster to triumph, argued for a preemptive strike against Spain in 1761 to prevent them from aligning with France. The king, with Bute’s guidance, not only rejected Pitt’s idea, but forced him to resign. In January 1762, Spain joined the war on the side of France, as Pitt predicted. Despite a resounding victory in North America, the king followed Bute’s advice to end the war on other fronts as quickly as possible, returning substantial portions of land. (They might even have returned Canada, if the French had asked for it.) Lambasted by the British press for his poor decision-making, most famously in John Wilkes’ 45th edition of the North Briton, Bute finally lost the king’s trust and resigned upon the signing of the Treaty of Paris in February 1763. The squabbling between Bute, Pitt and Wilkes had a lasting impact on Anglo-American politics. In 1763, the new first lord of the treasury (or prime minister), George Grenville, attempted to prosecute Wilkes for questioning the king’s integrity in North Briton No. 45. Meanwhile, Grenville began a program of taxation in the American colonies to help refill Britain’s coffers, drained by the expenses of the Seven Years’ War. Wilkes’ arrest and eventual banishment to France made him a martyr for liberty in the eyes of many Britons at home as well as in those of the American colonists as they strained under the taxes and other costly measures imposed by Grenville’s ministry. 1906 Mine explosion kills 1,060 in France A devastating mine disaster kills over 1,000 workers in Courrieres, France, on this day in 1906. An underground fire sparked a massive explosion that virtually destroyed a vast maze of mines. The Courrieres Colliery in northern France was a complex series of mines near the Pas-de-Calais Mountains. Tunnels into the mines issued forth from several towns in the area and more than 2,000 men and boys worked the mines, digging for coal that was used mostly in the manufacture of gas. At about 3 p.m. on the afternoon of March 9, a fire began 270 meters underground in what was known as the Cecil pit. Unable to immediately extinguish it, workers decided to close the pit’s outlets and starve the fire of air. The following morning, with 1,795 workers inside the mine’s deep tunnels, a huge explosion issued forth from the Cecil pit. Apparently, fissures in the pit’s walls had allowed in flammable gases that were then sparked by the still-smoldering fire. It was 7 a.m. when debris rocketed out of the tunnels’ openings. Several people on the surface were killed by the blast and the roof a mine office was blown right off the building. Fires raged from every opening of the mine and many people suffered terrible burn injuries. Since the fires continued to burn, rescuers and family members of the miners were unable to send help down the mine shafts. One rescue party of 40 men paid the ultimate price for their attempt–they were all killed when the shaft they were descending collapsed. Soon, French soldiers were called in to establish order from the mounting chaos outside the mine. As bodies began to be found, a mortuary was established near the mine. It took weeks for the all of the bodies to be recovered and identified. In the end, the casualty toll from this disaster was 1,060 miners killed, with hundreds more suffering serious injuries.