ALISON STEWART, host:
Forty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave what would be the last public speech of his life.
(Soundbite of speech "I've Been to the Mountaintop")
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR (Activist, Civil Rights Movement): We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.
(Soundbite of applause)
Dr. KING: And I don't mind.
STEWART: A string of events brought Dr. King to Memphis that night, April 3rd, 1968. He spoke at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of the city's mostly black striking sanitation workers. Some 24 hours later, on April 4th at 6:01 p.m., he was shot dead by a sniper's bullet at the Lorraine Motel.
(Soundbite of news broadcast)
Mr. DAN RATHER (Newscaster, CBS): Dan Rather reporting for CBS News from New York. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot to death by an assassin late today, as he stood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
STEWART: On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Civil Rights pioneer, CNN will launch a broadcast and digital initiative called "Black in America: A Look at the Legacy of the King Years and the Current State of African-Americans in the United States."
CNN's Soledad O'Brien is reporting and anchoring the series, and it premiers tonight nine p.m. eastern time with a special called "Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination." Soledad, thanks for joining us on NPR.
Ms. SOLEDAD O'BRIEN (Reporter, CNN): It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
STEWART: There's so much detail in the special, and it's really interesting timeline arcs to follow. But I do want to start with the very beginning of the program, because it's very striking in a kind of stark way. You're standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, outside of the room where Dr. King stayed, and then where he was ultimately shot.
What was it like? What was the sensation like standing there, looking around, looking at the buildings where his assassin may or may not have holed up?
Ms. O'BRIEN: Yeah, you know what's amazing to me is that on some ways you know you're sort of standing literally in a pivotal spot in history, in time in this country. There's a chunk of concrete on that balcony that's literally has been cut away, because there was so much blood from when Dr. King was shot down that they could never get it out.
So they just cut the concrete out and re-poured it. And yet at the same time it is so normal. It's just one of those typical, you know, balconies of a motel of that time. It's now the Civil Rights Museum, as you know, but it's just, you know, you really understand the stories that I'd only just heard - hadn't been there to see, of when Dr. King leans over the balcony to talk to friends.
Because they're all getting ready to go out for that supper, which is why he was out on the balcony anyway. And why Reverend Billy Kyles was standing, you know, just a few feet away. So, to kind of step into a place in history that you've run through your head and read about and heard people talk about but never really been up there in person is a pretty remarkable thing.
STEWART: Let's talk about the structure of the special. You retrace the steps of the man convicted of King's murder, James Earl Ray, and then of Dr. King himself, putting together, sort of, parallel timelines of their path to Memphis, with 40 years of hindsight and a lot of research that you got to do and documents you go to see. Was there anything, in the eyewitness accounts or in the research, that you think would impress even the biggest history buff?
Ms. O'BRIEN: Yeah, you know what I thought was really interesting? And we were able to track down, probably the officer who made the biggest difference in this case, who didn't even realize he had. As you know, there was this report, basically, that the reason the bundle was dropped in the doorway of the rooming house was because James Earl Ray panicked. He saw a police officer coming, had the bundle and...
STEWART: And the bundle had the gun in it as well?
Ms. O'BRIEN: The gun...
STEWART: The blanket.
Ms. O'BRIEN: A bunch of other things. It all tied him not just to the room, but also to the crime. So he drops this bundle and that bundle becomes critical. Without the bundle, you'd have no evidence. With the bundle, you have everything that they will, you know, later put James Earl Ray in prison for the rest of his life. And we're able to track down that particular officer who was parked in his vehicle, basically he's the low guy on the totem pole who's listening to the radio while everybody else goes into the firehouse to take a break.
But he's stuck outside, has to listen to the radio. Over the radio comes "Dr. King's been shot." Gets out of the car, runs down the street and probably gets within ten or 12 feet of James Earl Ray and he gets called back. The radio goes off again. So he turns and heads back to the car.
And it's that moment that become pivotal in what happened since then, which is James Earl Ray drops the bundle, people say, and then this officer - for the first time he discovers that he was that officer was when we told him. Because we were able to piece together all the different testimony and all the different stories over the last 40 years.
STEWART: Oh, what were his eyes like when you told him that?
Ms. O'BRIEN: You know, I thought that he would think of himself as being, you know, so critical in such a positive way. He actually was afraid and said, wow, I'm glad I didn't run into him. I think he would have killed me.
STEWART: The name of the program is "Eyewitness to Murder" and that's one of the strengths of the show. You speak to people, like this officer, who were there when this happened. I want to play this clip of you interviewing the coroner who performed the autopsy on Dr. King.
(Soundbite of show "Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination")
Dr. JERRY FRANCISCO (Coroner, Performed Autopsy on Dr. King): The bullet entered at this location on the jaw, passing through the jaw, through the neck, ending up in the back, at this location where my thumb is located.
Ms. O'BRIEN: Forty years ago, Dr. Francisco went up on this same balcony to plot the path of the shot.
The bullet came obviously from this direction and what happened?
Dr. FRANCISCO: It came from right to left and above downward.
Ms. O'BRIEN: So the bullet fired from that bathroom window.
Dr. FRANCISCO: From that bathroom window.
Ms. O'BRIEN: Would that trajectory be consistent with what you described?
Dr. FRANCISCO: Yes, it would.
Ms. O'BRIEN: No question about it?
Dr. FRANCISCO: Not at all.
STEWART: He was very forthcoming, but I'm curious, who was a more difficult interview among the eyewitnesses?
Ms. O'BRIEN: You know, among the eyewitnesses, I wouldn't say anyone was a difficult witness. One of the most interesting people to interview of that front was James Earl Ray's brother, Jimmy. And partly because he knows crime so well, that I'd say to him, but, you know, what you're telling me contradicts what you said in testimony. He'd say, oh, statute of limitations has run out. I can now say this, I mean, you know...
Ms. O'BRIEN: And he was really interesting. You know, one of the takes on James Earl Ray is that he wasn't the sharpest tool in the tool shed - so how could he? It sort of goes to the conspiracy theory. He couldn't have done it alone because he's not smart enough. You know, here's your average two-bit criminal. Could he have pulled it off alone? And you ask someone like James Earl Ray's brother Jerry. He'll both argue that he was plenty sharp enough, but he didn't do it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. O'BRIEN: So you know, he probably was the most interesting person to interview in that kind of trying to nail them down on coming up with a theory. But all these years later, people still have in their minds, you know, they believe what they believe. The evidence, you know, one person hopes for a piece - but you know, if you could connect the gun to the bullet, it would be great.
Not just the gun to a fingerprint, but the gun to the bullet would be great. But they tried 18 times, never able to do it. And all these things lead to these lingering questions.
STEWART: We're speaking with CNN's Soledad O'Brien about her new series premiering tonight. The first episode is "Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination." And of course, your film's full of facts, but you brought this up yourself. Talking about, you guys dive right into the conspiracy theories, that he did not act alone, that there may have been this man Raul who was leading James Earl Ray to be involved in this.
Could you lay out one or two theories, conspiracy theories, that you understand why someone might believe it?
Ms. O'BRIEN: Oh, absolutely. Well, the question, first of all, is just financing. You know, James Earl Ray ends up overseas. James Earl Ray has a new Mustang that he purchases with cash. James Earl Ray is funding himself, but he's, you know, a two-bit criminal. Who paid for it? So I think when you look at it from that perspective, it's pretty clear, well, you know, how was this funded? is a pretty good question.
And then you learn about a bank robbery that took place, and we're sort of able to connect 20 dollar bills that were stolen,- thousands and thousands of them stolen in that bank robbery, to the way James Earl Ray paid for his vehicle and paid for his travel. In addition, you know, when you talk to the prosecutor and he says - and I said, well, why do you think that it's not a conspiracy?
And his ultimate answer is, well, you know conspiracies are hard to maintain over all this time, which is probably anecdotally true, but not exactly really good evidence. You know, so, I think you have a lot of these loose ends, that I can understand why people would say, listen, there is - there's great credence in some of these conspiracy theories.
And then, of course, finally, the government hated Martin Luther King so much. They had actually pushed to try and get him to kill himself. So you know, it's not much of a step. It's not that much implausible to think that the government could be involved as well. I understand the people who believe the conspiracy theories.
STEWART: In fact, Dr. King's assistant Andrew Young, of course, former Georgia congressman, a mayor of Atlanta, said he believe King was the victim of a government plot. Let's play a little clip.
(Soundbite of show "Eyewitness to Murder")
Former Representative ANDREW YOUNG (Former Assistant to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Former Congressman and Mayor, Atlanta, Georgia): I think that there was a determination in very high places that our movement had to stop.
Ms. O'BRIEN: In his mind, a multi-layered conspiracy.
Former Representative YOUNG: This certainly went as far as the FBI and the Memphis police and the U.S. military.
STEWART: It was fascinating some of the detail about the FBI, the lengths they went to to discredit Martin Luther King.
Ms. O'BRIEN: The obsession, the obsession that J. Edgar Hoover had with Martin Luther King. And I thought it was fascinating. You know, we talked to Congressman Lewis, who said, you know, they always were looking to the movement to see if we had been infiltrated by the communists, or if we were a communist movement, but he said, we, you know, black Americans were so oppressed that we didn't need to go outside. You know, we didn't need someone to come in and rile us up.
You know, an outside agitator. We understood fully well that we were being oppressed every day and it didn't require outside help on that. But it's true, I think because of the hatred that the government had for Martin Luther King, which is well-documented, and because of the memo they sent out really hoping he would kill himself - and they were trying to literally destroy him. I don't think it's a big jump to say, well, maybe the government was involved in his assassination.
STEWART: Just about a minute left, Soledad. A very poignant part of the documentary to me was Dr. King's somewhat resignation of the idea that he was going to die a young man. Why did he believe this?
Ms. O'BRIEN: You know, partly because, as Andrew Young said, they were always being threatened with death. They didn't carry any weapons, because everyone around them was armed all the time. And they didn't want to have an excuse to be shot. But I think that there was just so much death in his life.
And when Kennedy was killed, I think they figured that you know, if they can't protect the president - if you can't protect the president, you know, then forget it. Forget it. So I think that there was a sense of, you know - as you know, he was stabbed in a book-signing in Harlem. And it missed his heart by a quarter of an inch.
So here's a guy who lived very presently in his life with death all the time. The fire bombings, the overt threats on his life and his family. I think he knew that what he had taken on was very dangerous for him and his associates and it wouldn't be a surprise. I don't think he was predicting his own death before the age of 40, but I think he knew death was around him and it was very likely.
STEWART: Soledad O'Brien is the host of CNN Presents "Black in America." The two-hour premier of "Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination" airs tonight on CNN at nine p.m. Nice to speak with you, Soledad.
Ms. O'BRIEN: As likewise.
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
Hey, that does it for this hour of the BPP. Thanks for joining us. We're online all the time at npr.org/bryantpark. I'm Rachel Martin.
STEWART: And I'm Alison Stewart. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.