Who Killed Martin Luther King?
(condensed from the original article)
February 21, 2000, consortiumnews.com
By Douglas Valentine
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.)
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. …
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
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
…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
…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
"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
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
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