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James Lawson: Befriending James Earl Ray After MLK's Death

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the civil rights leader had come to Memphis at the urging of his friend and fellow pastor United Methodist James M. Lawson. At age 88, Lawson does not hesitate when asked why he later reached out to the man accused of killing the leader of the nonviolence movement in the United States.

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The Rev. James Lawson: “Martin King would have gone to visit him. I knew this.”

United Methodist pastor and activist James Lawson lost his close friend Martin Luther King in 1968 to an assassin’s bullet. When James Earl Ray was named as King’s murderer, Lawson wanted to model love not hate.

Lawson: “I started visiting with him simply and tried to befriend him. The motivation was simple. I did not see it as something apart from the love of God or the love of Jesus.”

Over years of prison visits and getting to know the accused, Lawson formed his own opinion.

Lawson: “Beyond a shadow of a doubt James Earl Ray was not the assassin or the planner.”

Lawson: “He was not a racist. Andrew Young visited him. Ralph Abernathy went to visit him. Jesse Jackson made a visit to him. There was a consensus among us that this man was not a racist.”

Lawson became the hated man’s pastor. He recalls a phone call from Ray’s girlfriend Anna one night which interrupted a family dinner and spurred him to action.

Lawson: “She said that ‘James and I want to be married. We want you to do it.’ I turned around and sat back at the table. Our oldest boy John, I asked the question, ‘Should I marry James Earl Ray in prison?’ And John said, ‘If you believe that stuff you preach you’ll do it.’ So what could I say about that?”

Lawson performed the prison wedding in 1978, and 20 years later visited the inmate on his deathbed.  

Lawson: “I spent an afternoon with him when he was very, very ill. And he died a few days after that. And, of course, he let me know he wanted me to do his service, which I agreed to do.”

Lawson: “I knew that I had to carry out a ministry in the spirit of Martin King. But most of my nonviolent participation and practice is out of the sense of the presence of God and the Spirit of God with Jesus as a major teacher. That’s still my guideline. That’s still the path of reflection that I take.”


This story was taken from a longer interview about Rev. Lawson's life. Watch a profile. And read more of this thoughts about civil rights issues today.

Learn about other United Methodists who shared MLK's dream too.

This video was produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN.
Media contact is Joe Iovino.

This video was first posted on January 12, 2017.

United Methodist Communications is an agency of The United Methodist Church

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