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Black in America: Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination

  • Story Highlights
  • "Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination" airs Saturday, April 4 and Sunday, April 5 at 8 p.m. ET
  • Examine the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray
  • Analyze evidence from King's assassination
  • Evaluate the effect King's death had on the civil rights movement
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(CNN Student News) -- CNN Presents: Black in America: Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination airs Saturday, April 4 and Sunday, April 5 at 8 p.m. ET on CNN

Program Overview Through interviews with witnesses and investigators, Soledad O'Brien retraces the steps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Earl Ray, the FBI and Memphis police and explores alternative scenarios of who was ultimately responsible for the murder that, for some, represented the end of the American Civil Rights era.

Grade Level: 9-12, College

Subject Areas: U.S. History, Criminal Justice

Objectives: The CNN Presents: Black in America: Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination and its corresponding discussion questions and activity challenge students to:

1. Examine the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray;
2. Analyze evidence from King's assassination;
3. Evaluate the effect King's death had on the civil rights movement.

Curriculum Connections

Standard 4 -- Historical Research

Formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos, historical sites, art, architecture, and other records from the past.

Interrogate historical data by uncovering the social, political, and economic context in which it was created; testing the data source for its credibility, authority, authenticity, internal consistency and completeness; and detecting and evaluating bias, distortion, and propaganda by omission, suppression, or invention of facts.

Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.

Standard 4A: The student understands the "Second Reconstruction" and its advancement of civil rights. Analyze the leadership and ideology of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement and evaluate their legacies.

The National Standards for History ( are published by the National Center for History in the Schools (

Discussion Questions

1. Who was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? How would you describe his approach to bringing about social and political change? What were some of King's contributions to the civil rights movement?

2. What were some of the challenges faced by activists in the civil rights movement? What acts of violence did King personally experience? Why do you think King continued to lead the civil rights movement after these experiences?

3. According to the program, what was King's relationship with each of the following individuals: President Lyndon Johnson, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy?

4. According to the segment: Why did the FBI investigate King? What actions did the FBI take in its investigation of King?

5. Why do you think Andrew Young considers it a compliment that the FBI labeled King "the most dangerous Negro"? Why do you think that, according to author David Garrow, the FBI "wanted Martin Luther King out of the civil rights movement"?

6. What was King's and his supporters' reaction to the FBI surveillance? What is your opinion of the FBI surveillance? Explain.

7. Why did King travel to Memphis in March 1968? Why did his supporters consider this trip to be a distraction? Why did he return to Memphis in April?

8. Who was James Earl Ray? What are some aliases he may have used? According to the program, what are some crimes he may have committed?

9. According to Ray: Who is Raoul? What did Ray say was Raoul's role in King's assassination? According to the program, what evidence either establishes or refutes Raoul's identity? Do you think Raoul exists? Why or why not?

10. According to the program: What evidence exists that James Earl Ray committed a bank robbery in Alton, Illinois? How is this robbery possibly linked to King's assassination?

11. After the assassination, where did Ray go? How and where was he eventually caught?

12. Who were Ray's lawyers in his original trial? Why do you think Ray chose them?

13. Which actions did Ray admit to regarding King's assassination? Did Ray ever confess to killing King?

14. What court cases emerged because of King's assassination? What were the results of these legal actions?

15. How did Ray respond to Dexter King when he asked, "Did you kill my father?" How did King respond? What is your reaction to Dexter King's response to Ray?

16. Where was Andrew Young when the King assassination occurred? Does Andrew Young think Ray killed King? According to Young, why was King assassinated?

17. What are some opinions expressed by people in the documentary regarding Ray's intelligence? What is his brother's opinion? What is your view of Ray?

18. In your view, what actions, if any, could have been taken to prevent King's assassination?

19. What other theories about King's murder are presented in the program? In your opinion, which one is most likely? Why do you think King was assassinated?

20. In your view, what events since King's death demonstrate that the civil rights movement succeeded? What aspects of life, if any, still need to be improved?

Suggested Activity: Weighing the Evidence

Copy and distribute the King Assassination Theories worksheet (pdf). Using the graphic organizer, have students take notes on the various theories of King's assassination while they watch the program. After the program, divide the students into six groups, one for each side of each theory. Using evidence from the documentary, challenge each group to present a closing argument supporting one of the theories in a court of law. Conclude the activity by polling the class to see what they believe after they have seen evidence and heard the arguments. Ask these questions for discussion: Did James Earl Ray kill Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? If so, did he act alone? If not, who committed this murder?

Martin Luther King, James Earl Ray, civil rights, assassination, FBI, surveillance, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Coretta Scott King

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