By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - A Memphis county official has opened an online museum of case files, personal correspondence and little-seen black-and-white images chronicling the jail time of James Earl Ray, who killed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. 43 years ago this Monday.
"This is not just an incredible part of Shelby County history and Tennessee history, but national and world history," said Tom Leatherwood, 54, Shelby County register of deeds.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down by Ray at the city's Lorraine Motel, sparking unrest across the country and an international manhunt for the killer.
The "museum" can be visited at register.shelby.tn.us. Scroll down below the "archives" section to find the "Martin Luther King Assassination Investigation" link, highlighted in small yellow print.
Making these mostly unseen images and documents available to the public is part of Leatherwood's effort to get the city's historical and genealogical records online and accessible.
One section of the site contains a mammoth batch of documents of the killer's legal proceedings Leatherwood found in 2007.
"I was walking through with a county archivist to try to organize and identify material. We saw this package and we turned it over and we saw 'James E. Ray,'" Leatherwood recalled. "That was a pretty exciting moment for someone who likes history and archives."
He says it took this long to make the records accessible because he needed to get permission from the public defender's office to post files detailing efforts by Ray's attorneys.
Memphis photographer Gil Michael, 77, was caught off-guard when he saw that the site contained photos of Ray that he took on the night he was booked.
Michael, then director of photography for the University of Memphis, was asked by the sheriff's office to volunteer his time and take pictures to be distributed to news outlets. "It wasn't feasible to have tons of media in there," said Michael, who Ray tried to kick as he was shooting a picture.
Michael has asked about the photos and the negatives over the years and was told no one could find them. Now that some are on display, he wonders if he has any legal claim to ownership and if the negatives are anywhere to be found. Michael said he is mainly interested in being credited for his work.
Leatherwood was in grade school at the time of the assassination, and remembers the turmoil.
"I remember the National Guard had been called out. There were soldiers with rifles and soldiers going around in Army trucks... " Leatherwood said. "It was a very tumultuous time."
Ray pleaded guilty, though he recanted and unsuccessfully fought to clear his name. He died in prison in 1998.
(Writing and reporting by Tim Ghianni; editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)