The sad life and little-known faith of James Earl Ray

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By Jerry B. Jenkins —

James Earl Ray
James Earl Ray

History has largely forgotten much of the story of Martin Luther King’s convicted assassin, James Earl Ray, a serial prison escapee. Most remember that he was an avowed racist who did the deed, fled the country, eventually confessed, was sentenced to 99 years, recanted, and spent the rest of his life fighting for a new trial – which was never granted.

What many don’t remember is that:

* he twice escaped from Brushy Mountain State Prison

* he married a courtroom artist in the 1970s and divorced her 14 years later

* he persuaded not only some members of the King family, but also the Rev. Jesse Jackson, that he was not the assassin

* he was attacked and stabbed 22 times in the prison library in 1981, requiring 77 stitches and barely surviving

But probably the least known anecdote from Ray’s sad, wasted life is that shortly before that attack on his own life, he came to faith in Jesus Christ through the ministry of prison chaplain Don Price.

I am aware of this story only because I know the Price family. When I was growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the 1950s and 60s, one of the highlights in our little local church, Oakwood Bible, every year or two was guest speaker Don Price, chaplain of a gospel rescue mission to the north of us.

Don Price had a dramatic story, and we kids loved it. He had been an actual criminal, involved in breaking and entering and armed robberies. He’d even been shot and spent time in prison! He’d eventually became a Christian when he faced the truth about himself and what he was doing to his young bride and his twin baby boys. He went on to a dynamic ministry among down and outers and eventually became involved in prison ministries.

Years later, when I became a Christian journalist, I hired on at Scripture Press Publications in Wheaton, Illinois, and worked with Terry Price, only to learn that he was one of Don’s twin boys. I regaled him with stories about how my brothers and I had idolized his father and his testimony.

Recently Terry shared with me the fact that his father had migrated south and visited Brushy Mountain State Prison weekly during the time James Earl Ray served his sentence there. He got the man involved in studying the Gospel of John and coming to chapel.

Terry told me, and says an Associated Press story by Tim Eblen also reports his dad recounting:

“James made his decision in a chapel service. As far as I can see, he’s had a real change. When I first started talking to him, he said, ‘I don’t have time for that.’ I said to him, ‘James, I thought that you had 99 years.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that is a long time, isn’t it?'”

Terry corresponded with Ray after Don Price died in 1985 and reports that he “did not want to go public at the time with his conversion because he felt it would be mocked by the world. He didn’t want people to think he was trying to get a religious ticket out of prison. He painted this little country church scene and gave it to my Dad. To me it shows that Mr. Ray did long for fellowship of other believers. [In it he shows] the rising of the sun, which depicts a better day ahead for those who know the Lord Jesus as Savior.”

James Earl Ray died of kidney disease and liver failure in April of 1998, almost 30 years to the day after he shot Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

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