1970s · Various
The archive features approximately 100 letters and documents signed by James Earl Ray the convicted assassin Martin Luther King (including 2 Autograph and 82 Typed Letters Signed together with countless Documents Signed) most of which are addressed to Kershaw who began corresponding with Ray in 1974 and becoming his lead attorney in 1977 before Ray fired him. The documents and correspondence cover an enormous variety of subjects including Ray's effort to secure a retrial (claiming his intial confession was coerced); his 1977 prison escape and capture; Ray's notorious interview with Playboy in which he famously failed a polygraph test reinforcing the view that he acted alone in the King assassination; fielding other magazine and television interviews, Ray's efforts to resist transfer to a federal prison, a suit against Time magazine for libel, among many others. The audio recordings consist of 18 reels of 1/4 in. unedited audio tape which constitute approximately eleven hours of conversations between Ray, Kershaw and others between March 11-22, 1977, most of which are labeled n the cases: ""Ray"" and ""Ray and Committee"" [recorded at 7 1/2 ips., each reel, 1800 ft., stored tails out].We have only been able to sample a very small portion of the audio tapes, but from the small samples we digitized, the conversations appear to be all interviews with Ray on a variety of subjects including Ray's claims about ""Raul,"" whom Ray claimed to be the mastermind of a conspiracy to assassinate the civil rights leader, as well as his planned testimony before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. The tape has been very well preserved and the audio quality is very good.
Ray's new defense lawyer
Kershaw began his association with Ray in 1974 after Ray wrote to the attorney at the recommendation of his brother ""Jerry Ray, saying you might be willing to represent me in a legal matter."" Kershaw represented Ray in his suit against Gerald Frank, the author of An American Death; its publisher, Time Inc.; William Bratford Huie, the author of He Slew the Dreamer and others seeking $500,000 in damages for ""alleged libel and violations of Civil Rights Statutes."" A federal judge dismissed the suit in September 1976. Kershaw also represented Ray in his battle to remain in state prison after the Governor of Tennessee sought to have him moved to a Federal Prison. According to a rambling document signed by Ray, ""News dispatches updated June 14, 1977, quotated [sic] the governor of the state of Tennessee, Hon. Ray Blanton, as writing the WHITE HOUSE and offering me to the president of United States. The White House was reported thereafter 'considering' the offer... Please consider the following: 1) I am not a federal prisoner, have no intention of being one, nor do I have a federal container against me. ... December 1973 the Federal Government, apparently represented by, Norman Carlson & J Stanley Pottinger, in collusion with several state politicians, attempted an illegal transfer of me to the Federal mental institution in Springfield Missouri. During this period a program called Project S.T.A.R.T. was in progress; the project evidently consisted of forcing prisoners to take drugs and submit to other therapeutic devices -- if the prisoner refused to participate … he was placed in solitary confinement. 4) in addition to the aforementioned 'project', the federal prison system has an apparent history of permitting certain uncooperative prisoners … murdered by F.B.I. informant types. ... shortly thereafter before the information select committee testified that the FBI (which had no jurisdiction over the matter, and the assistance was not requested by state officials) beat one or more of the prisoners with weapons attempting to force them to inform the FBI where James Earl Ray was at. If the United States government is interested in killing me and they are going to have to do by forcible [sic] removing me from the state prison in Petros, Tennessee, not from ambush in a federal prison, or a federal mental institution, then the above-mentioned parties to the transfer can answer for the acts in civil suit..."" This is but a telling sample of the content that can be found in this vast collection.
In 1977, Ray formally retained Kershaw as his lead attorney. In that capacity, Kershaw arranged for Ray to give testimony before the House Select Committee on Assassinations (albeit behind bars) advancing a vague conspiracy theory in which Ray was the unwitting accomplice to a plot to kill Martin Luther King. Of tremendous interest is a four page typed chronology, most likely typed by Ray himself, (as it was accomplished on the reverse of lined paper with numerous unprofessional corrections), detailing his interactions with ""Raul,"" who Ray claimed to be at the heart of the alleged conspiracy. Ray's chronology begins on June 24, 1967 when he left his job (""Quite [sic] job""). Ray then provided a bulleted account of his travels from Chicago to St. Louis to Montreal where on July 18, for example, he ""Robbed whore-house… "" Soon afterwards he ""met Raoul several times but desoded [sic decided] nothing"". Ray's chronology continues mentioning meetings with Raoul in New Orleans, trips to Mexico leading to April 4, 1968: the day King was killed in Memphis. The final entries in Ray's chronology directly implicate Raul in the purchase of the weapon that killed Dr. King: ""47. Roual [sic] came back 24th. [March] (or to drunks first?) then came to my place across street (I had told him might be their [sic]) said he would come around 11 o'clock, I heard him knocking at door, kicking on door; we deside [sic] before he left to leave side door open; said stick close as may need to take trip [to] Miami; I stuck close …48. Roual [sic] picked me up march 29th. where we went to Bir[mingham]. purchased rifle; 30th had to take back; I left for memphis 30th. and stayed that night in Florence; left florence 31st. left Miss. town 1st. left another Miss town 2nd. left Desoto 3rd."" Ray then adds in a shorthand that obscures its meaning: ""(Prosecution no I desoto?] & not as stips[?] say,in Atlanta) left new rebel [motel] 4th.""
Kershaw's public statements concerning Ray's presumed innocence, and his intention to have Ray testify before the House Select Committee with the ""Raul"" story drew the ire of Harold Weisberg (1913 - 2002) who had voluntarily worked as an investigator for Ray. On March 6,1977, Weisberg wrote Kershaw: ""A news story in this morning's Washington Post including direct and indirect quotations of you troubles me deeply in a number of ways. From the saying about fools rushing into the finding of the sixth circuit Court of Appeals about a lawyer seeking to commercialize a sensational case. One of the reasons I write is to ascertain the accuracy of the words attributed to you. I want you to understand that what is attributed to you is defamatory of Jim Lesar and me for certain and probably of Bud Fensterwald. ... As a matter of fact, without consulting with his defense, Jimmy did file allegations of conspiracy and conspirators in court. You have not bothered to familiarize yourself with the case… If you had, you would know of this and the fact that when the press checked his allegations out you cannot be totally without basis.... You really have thrown him to the starving Congressional wolves. They have been conducting a low-grade media event and are self-destructing. They have steadfastly refused to look into the basic facts of the crime. The staff, in fact, invented proofs of guilt to deceive the Members. The Members were lied to on this by the staff, particularly by the Department of Justice lawyer, and supported by Dick Sprague. The story says, 'Kershaw, who said Ray retained him last week.' You know this is false. I have known of your representation of him since last year. I was told it was limited to the filing of civil suits. False statements attributed to you added to false statements you attribute to Jimmy are not in any way helpful to him or his defense. They did, of course, get you in the headlines. I await your written apology for your defaming me. Fine asked about any of this but press I will, of course, tell the truth … fairly large number of reporters did investigate Jimmy's earlier representations about conspirators and found without substance. A large number reporters know the amount of work Jim Lesar and I've done without any pay and at our own expense. Reporters, all with major papers, know of the 1970 Department Justice offer to Jimmy. ... It is difficult for me to imagine how you could have done more damage to Jimmy and hurt and interfere with what I have regarded … very good prospects, very good at least until you sniffed the free advertising lawyers cannot buy. This is precisely what ruined Jimmy in the past..."" Despite Weisberg's protestations, Kershaw arranged for Ray to testify before the House Committee and advance the tale of ""Raul"" In his own testimony, Kershaw told the House panel that on the afternoon of King's assassination in Memphis, ""Raul"" had told Ray to go and see a movie – placing him away from the Lorraine Motel at 6pm. when King was shot on the balcony. Ray didn't go to the movies, Kershaw testified, instead he had a spare tire fixed. Yet Kershaw could produce no witnesses. Kershaw convinced the committee to conduct new ballistics tests on the rifle. They proved inconclusive.
The Playboy Interview
Ray's tales of ""Raul"" became the centerpiece of his 1977 interview with Playboy magazine. Kershaw and Ray viewed the interview, that was to include a polygraph test, as a chance to vindicate Ray. When negotiating with Playboy, Kershaw demanded a contribution for the legal defense fund that he had established for Ray. Playboy declined, citing a policy of not making contributions to legal defense funds. They offered a compromise: Kershaw would be paid as a research consultant on the interview. (It wasn't Playboy's business if Kershaw chose to use the funds in Ray's defense). According to a letter of agreement between Keshaw and Playboy, the magazine was to pay the attorney $1,000 for ""all right title and interest, including all rights of copyright, in and to the preliminary research material already completed…"" In addition, Playboy would pay him an ""additional $12,000.00 for your participation, as researcher and editorial consultant…"" The collection includes a stub for a $4,000 installment as well as an uncashed check for $150 payable to Kershaw's wife, who took photographs for the interview. (The collection includes numerous original black and white photographs taken by her as well as contact sheets). On July 6,1977, Kershaw and Ray agreed to form a legal defense fund called ""Defense fund for Ray."" The fund was to be ""financed by contributions, and sales of books, records, souvenirs, movie rights and by all other lawful means. … All net proceeds of such activities will be placed in the fund … the fund will be used exclusively to defray all costs of preparation for the trial and the trial itself and appeals if necessary … After the trial all funds remaining will be divided 50-50, between Ray and Kershaw…""
The preparations for the interview were interrupted when Ray escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary on June 10, 1977. He was captured three days later and the state imposed an additional year to his 99-year sentence. Amazingly enough, the agreement Playboy executed with Kershaw was dated the day after Ray was captured…June 14! In a rare Autograph Letter Signed, June 14,1977, Ray writes Kershaw, ""I thought I would write you after my brief vacation. Yesterday a prison official said you had called and asked that I return the call; inasmuch as the officials were trying to play the matter for its P.R. effects I suspect they delicately declined to let me make the phone call being concerned at what you would say to the press…"" Only a week later, on June 22, Ray would take the polygraph at the prison. According to Playboy's press release: ""In the polygraph test, Ray answered, 'No,' to the question 'Did you kill Martin Luther King, Jr.?' at the point marked 5 on the test …. For about 20 seconds following his reply, the graph shows, according to the examiners, 'significant emotional disturbances indicative of deception.'"" The archive includes annotated copies of the polygraph readings together with a list of the questions posed during the interview.
Ray's failure of the polygraph test created a huge splash for Playboy in their September 1977 issue. Almost immediately Ray sued Playboy for defamation. On August 13, Kershaw advised Ray ""it would be well to give this some second thoughts. What's the hurry? Arn't [sic] you acting too hastily again? You are upset because their charts show you lied when you know you didn't. I think there is an error in their chart which is published in the magazine. I have had it studied by experts here in Nashville and they find all kinds of fault with it…"" Offering to bring in another lie detector company, he reminded Ray, ""…that I will allow no polygraph test to be admitted into evidence unless it is favorable. By the time of the trial the Playboy test will be washed away as defective."" This did little to deter Ray who expanded his suit to include Kershaw accusing him of misappropriating the funds paid by Playboy and claiming he deliberately ""acted to defraud & illegally retain monies he (Defendant) collected from selling interviews of Plaintiff to the commercial communications Industry."" Kershaw countersued Ray citing the July 6, 1977 agreement establishing the legal defense fund. The file concerning the suit and counter suit includes several original interrogatories signed personally by Ray.
Needless to say, Ray fired Kershaw and replaced him with Mark Lane (b. 1927), the attorney and noted conspiracy theorist. Apparently by May 1990 the sting of the affair had worn off and Kershaw made a sales pitch to Ray informing him that ""… a California producer wants to give you $2,200,000.00 for complete rights upon completion of production. This sounds pretty good at first blush, but it fails to provide you with any percentage ownership interest after production; a residual royalty, or ownership interest plan would yield much more money to you… A Nashville group is interested … on this latter basis."" Kershaw urged Ray to pursue the offers ""for two reasons: (1) money, and (2) the beneficial effect of publicity, under our guidance, which would create a favorable atmosphere for your early release, which in my opinion is long overdue. I know of a number of legal scholars who agree with me. A movie would generate discussion and lead to a 'Release Ray' movement that would shed much light in heretofore dark corners."" Ray responded on May 22, indicating that he would be open to discussing the matter further. Later that summer, Ray wrote to Kershaw to gauge his interest in facilitating the sale of the film rights to his story which had been published in book form under the title Tennessee Waltz. In his August 13, 1990 letter Ray recalled, ""… As to background, Initially my agreements were with Tupper Saussy, and I had given him a power-of-attorney to arrange to have the Waltz book published; however, he had to rush the editing process since he was appealing his prison sentence. The result: he became a fugitive, the book editing wasn't too good althought [sic] the factual information therein was OK, and when he left he took everything with him, computer book wrote on plus the contract he had with me that he had made out via the power-of-attorney & which I had never seen. Subsequently I had to sue him in chancery court to find out about the contract & generally just what was what…"" The file in which these letters lie also features Kershaw's extensive manuscript notes on the subject of film exploitation. The first page was headed with a list of suitable film people to approach, beginning with ""Oliver Stone?"" (His punctuation, not ours). It appears that none of these offers ever materialized. Kershaw also tried his hand at turning Ray's story into a book. The archive includes a 66 page draft manuscript in Kershaw's hand titled, ""The James Earl Ray Story.""
Kershaw himself was an outspoken white supremacist. He was a founder of The League of the South, an organization that according to their website, seeks to ""advance the cultural, social, economic, and political well-being and independence of the Southern people by all honourable [sic] means."" Kershaw also gained notoriety when he designed and commissioned an enormous equestrian statue of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the first Ku Klux Klan, that sits in a private park just off of Interstate 65 near Nashville. The statue drew enormous criticism, but Kershaw defended it, remarking to the New Orleans Times-Picayune that ""Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery.""
This is an important archive of material that provides a truly intimate glimpse into Ray's world in a way that other resources cannot. We have only scratched the surface of this vast archive of material Apart from Ray and Kershaw, other correspondents include Ray's brother, Jerry Ray for whom Kershaw also did legal work; James Lesar, who worked with Harold Weisberg on Ray's defense efforts and many other state and federal officials who crossed paths with Kershaw and Ray. The collection also includes letters and cards sent to Ray by admirers. As noted previously, we have only been able to listen to small excerpts of the many hours of taped conversations between Ray and Kershaw that will very likely shed further insights into the mind of the man who confessed to murdering Dr. King in 1968.
" (Inventory #: 55418)