On July 19th, 1968, then Shelby County Sheriff Bill Morris made history, when he took Dr. Martin Luther King’s accused assassin into custody. Thursday, Morris, now 85, reflected on that significant moment, when America’s most wanted man arrived back in Memphis to face justice.
After Ray’s arrest in England in June 1968, Morris spent weeks preparing with federal officials for his arrival in Shelby County, including a top-secret flight to Shelby County. Morris faced intense pressure for things to go safely and smoothly, and he succeeded.
“We went there in an entourage,” Morris said. “We were in an armored car. Of course, there was a lot of intrigue. I didn’t know what to expect.”
50 years ago Thursday, in the middle of the night, then Shelby County Sheriff Bill Morris came face to face for the first time with James Earl Ray, after he landed in a top secret flight at the Millington Naval Air Base.
“No one but me at that point and the people flying that plane knew where it was going to go,” Morris said. “Once we were on the plane, I read James Earl Ray his rights, and there’s a record of that and I’m happy to say it was recorded.”
Morris said Ray said little that night five decades ago as they drove to the downtown Memphis jail, avoiding the 100 journalists gathered outside.
“Excited to have him in the jail and locked in on what we thought was a horrific crime,” Morris said. “There was a prison bus sitting there that was backed out, so it blocked the view of the cameras.”
Morris and Ray eventually spoke several times, as he learned more about the lifelong criminal.
“It was obvious to me he was a thug, best I could put it. So were his family, for the most part,” Morris said.
Ray pleaded guilty to killing Dr. King in March 1969, after spending eight months in jail with Morris and authorities monitoring him in his cell 24/7.
“Relief, that’s the only thing I could think of,” Morris said. “Our people had worked hard.”
During his time in the Shelby County jail nothing, including Ray’s meals, was left to chance.
“He’d take his tray, the other two officers would take their trays and they would all eat together. You know, there’s always a possibility someone would try and contaminate the food,” Morris said. “That might have been a little extreme, but it was an extreme situation. It’s better to go overboard than to be caught short.”
Five decades later, Morris believes federal investigations into Dr. King’s assassination didn’t go far enough.
“I don’t think James Earl Ray did all that he did without other people being involved.”
Morris later went to be elected as Shelby County Mayor.