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House on Mango Street
Who Killed Martin Luther King?
(condensed from the original article)

February 21, 2000, consortiumnews.com

By Douglas Valentine  

(Editor's Note: Douglas Valentine worked as a researcher for the King family and testified at the trial about suspicions that Dr. King might have been under U.S. government surveillance at the time of the assassination.)

On Dec. 8, a jury in Memphis, Tenn., deliberated for only three hours before deciding that the long-held official version of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination was wrong.

The jury's verdict implicated a retired Memphis businessman [Loyd Jowers] and government agencies in a conspiracy to kill the civil rights giant.

Though the trial testimony had received little press attention outside of the Memphis area, the startling outcome drew an immediate rebuttal from defenders of the official finding: that James Earl Ray acted alone or possibly as part of a low-level conspiracy of a few white racists.

Leading newspapers across the country disparaged the December verdict as the product of a flawed conspiracy theory given a one-sided presentation.

…For its part, the King family cited the verdict as a way of dealing with its personal grief. …

…Without doubt, the trial in Memphis lacked the neat wrap-up of a Perry Mason drama. The testimony was sometimes imprecise, dredging up disputed memories more than three decades old….

…Yet, despite the shortcomings, the trial was the first time that evidence from the King assassination was presented to a jury in a court of law. The verdict demonstrated that 12 citizens -- six blacks and six whites -- did not find the notion of a wide-ranging conspiracy to kill King as ludicrous as many commentators did.

The trial suggested, too, that the government erred by neglecting the larger issue of public interest in the mystery of who killed Martin Luther King Jr. Instead the government simply affirmed and reaffirmed James Earl Ray's guilty plea for three decades. Insisting that the evidence pointed clearly toward Ray as the assassin, the government never agreed to vacate Ray's guilty plea and allow for a full-scale trial, a possibility that ended when Ray died from liver disease in 1998.

At that point, the King family judged that a wrongful death suit against Jowers was the last chance for King's murder to be considered by a jury. From the start, the family encountered harsh criticism from many editorial writers who judged the conspiracy allegations nutty.

The King family's suspicions, however, derived from one fact that was beyond dispute: that powerful elements of the federal government indeed were out to get Martin Luther King Jr. in the years before his murder.

In particular, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover despised King as a dangerous radical who threatened the national security and needed to be neutralized by almost any means necessary.

After King's "I have a dream speech" in 1963, FBI assistant director William Sullivan called King "the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country." Hoover reacted to King's Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 with the comment that King was "the most notorious liar in the country."

The documented record is clear that the FBI and other federal agencies aggressively investigated King as an enemy of the state. His movements were monitored; his phones were tapped; his rooms were bugged; derogatory information about his personal life was leaked to discredit him; he was blackmailed about extramarital affairs; he was sent a message suggesting that he commit suicide.

"There is only one way out for you," the message read. "You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation."

These FBI operations escalated as black uprisings burned down parts of American cities and as the nation's campuses erupted in protests against the Vietnam War. To many young Americans, black and white, King was a man of unparalleled stature and extraordinary courage. He was the leader who could merge the civil rights and anti-war movements.

Increasingly, King saw the two issues as intertwined, as President Lyndon Johnson siphoned off anti-poverty funds to prosecute the costly war in Vietnam.

On April 15, 1967, less than a year before his murder, King concluded a speech to an anti-war rally with a call on the Johnson administration to "stop the bombing." King also began planning a Poor People's March on Washington that would put a tent city on the Mall and press the government for a broad redistribution of the nation's wealth.

Covert government operations worked to disrupt both the anti-war and civil rights movements by infiltrating them with spies and agents provocateurs. The FBI’s COINTELPRO sought to neutralize what were called "black nationalist hate groups," counting among its targets King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

One FBI memo fretted about the possible emergence of a black "Messiah" who could "unify and electrify" the various black militant groups. The memo listed King as "a real contender" for this leadership role.

With this backdrop came the chaotic events in Memphis in early 1968 as King lent his support to a sanitation workers' strike marred by violence.

The government's surveillance of King in Memphis -- by both federal agents and city police -- would rest at the heart of the case more than three decades later.
On April 4, 1968, at 6 p.m., King emerged from his room on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel. As he leaned over the balcony, King was struck by a single bullet and died…

…In 1971, investigative writer Harold Weisberg published the first dissenting account of the official King case in his book, Frame Up. Weisberg noted problems with the physical evidence, including the FBI's failure to match the death slug to the alleged murder weapon.

Questions about the case mounted when the federal government declassified records revealing the intensity of FBI hatred for King. The combination of factual discrepancies and a possible government motive led some of King's friends to suspect a conspiracy…

On Oct. 2, 1998, the King family filed a wrongful death suit against Jowers. The trial opened in November 1999, attracting scant attention from the national press….

…A former state judge, Joe Brown, took the stand to challenge the government's confidence that Ray's rifle was the murder weapon. During one of Ray's earlier court hearings, Brown had ordered new ballistic tests on the gun and the bullet that killed King.

The results had been inconclusive, with the forensics experts unable to rule whether the gun was the murder weapon or wasn't. In his testimony, however, Brown asserted that the sight on the rifle was so poor that it couldn't have killed King.

"This weapon literally could not hit the broadside of a barn," Brown said. But he acknowledged that he had no formal training as a weapons expert.

The jury also heard testimony that federal authorities were monitoring the area around the Lorraine Motel. Carthel Weeden, a former captain with the Memphis Fire Department, said that on the afternoon of April 4, 1968, two men appeared at the fire station across from the motel and showed the credentials of U.S. Army officers.

The men then carried briefcases, which they said held photographic equipment, up to the roof of the station. Weeden said the men positioned themselves behind a parapet approximately 18 inches high, a position that gave them a clear view of the Lorraine Motel and the rooming house window from which Ray allegedly fired the shot that killed King.

They also would have had a view of the area behind Jim's Grill. But what happened to any possible photographs remains a mystery. Weeden added that he was never questioned by local or federal authorities…

…Other witnesses described a strange withdrawal of police protection from around the motel about an hour before King's death. A group of black homicide detectives, who had served as King's bodyguards on previous visits to Memphis, were kept from performing those duties in April 1968.

In his summation, trying to minimize his client's alleged role in the conspiracy, Garrison asked the jury, "would the owner of a greasy spoon restaurant, and a lone assassin, could they pull away officers from the scene of an assassination? Could they put someone up on the top of the fire station?"

The cumulative evidence apparently convinced the jury. After the trial, juror Robert Tucker told a reporter that the 12 jurors agreed that the assassination was too complex for one person to handle. He noted the testimony about the police guards being removed and Army agents observing King from the firehouse.  "All of these things added up," Tucker said. [AP, Dec. 9, 1999]

Even before the trial ended, the media controversy about the case had begun. Many reporters viewed the conspiracy allegations as half-baked and the defense as offering few challenges to the breathtaking assertions…

…The larger tragedy may be that the serious questions about King's assassination have receded even deeper into the historical mist.

As Court TV analyst [Harriet] Ryan noted, "Whatever theories Garrison and Pepper get into the record ... it is not likely they will change the general belief that Ray was responsible."

Though Ryan may be right, another perspective came in 1996 when two admirers of Dr. King -- the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. and actor Mike Farrell -- wrote a fund-raising letter seeking support for a fuller investigation of the assassination.

They argued that the full story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was too important to the country to leave any stone unturned. They stated:

"There are buried truths in our history which continue to insist themselves back into the light, perhaps because they hold within them the nearly dead embers of what we were once intended to be as a nation."

Douglas Valentine is author of the 1990 book, The Phoenix Program.


Teacher's Guide
Essential Questions
Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Day Four
Additional Projects/Activities I
Additional Projects/Activities II
Additional Projects/Activities III
Additional Projects/Activities IV
Transcript of TV Reports
Michael Eric Dyson
  Materials for Other Activities
Instructions for Essay on King's Giant Triplets
Who Killed Martin Luther King?
St. Martin, The Militant
All Things Censored
Native American Resistance
Day Of Shame
Samples Of Student Work

Urban Dreams
OUSD Curriculum Unit
Hidden In Plain Sight -
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s
Radical Vision
Subject: U.S. History
Grade Level: 11th

Lesson Plan Author:
Craig Gordon
Organization: OUSD