Sunday, February 05, 2006


News accounts have paid tribute to Coretta King and her husband, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. On matters of great importance, however, modern American media have an irritating way of saying very little at great length. You can digest the details in the newspapers and on tv; but the photos were cropped long ago and the most important passages were deleted.

The first U.S. military intelligence files on the King family were opened in 1917. Spy operations were initiated against black social organizations and especially against black churches, which were viewed as prime sources of information about the black community. Three generations of the King family produced ministers who served the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. It was inevitable that they would fall under scrutiny.

In 1917, the government was concerned that the Huns would turn our colored people against us in World War I — a notion that reeks of white guilt and the suppressed recognition that the black community harbored legitimate grievances. Domestic spying continued in World War II because the Japanese might have roused our negroes. And during the Vietnam War, of course, we faced the danger of communists stirring up our blacks. When you ponder the issue of warrantless domestic surveillance today, remember that there are black Muslims; and they are very high on the list of those who must be watched.

The military intelligence file on Martin Luther King, Jr. was opened in 1947, when he was eighteen. He was considered a curiousity rather than a threat until 1957, when he attended the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. He was watched ever more closely after that. When Dr. King was in New York, he was monitored by 108th Military Intelligence Group, in Los Angeles by the 115th, in Washington by the 116th, in Europe by the 66th, and so on. When he visited Memphis in March and April of 1968, his hotel room was bugged by the 902nd M.I.G. Civil rights organizations in Memphis were infiltrated by the 111th M.I.G. In April of 1968, there were at least three military operations underway in and around Memphis, Tennessee.

On April 4th, 1968 — one year to the day after his first major speech against the war in Vietnam — a joint operation involving the Memphis police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the United States Army killed Dr. King.

A “lone assassin” named James Ray was duly convicted and the cover-up went into high gear. In a memo dated March 11, 1969, F.B.I. Assistant Director Cartha DeLoach wrote:

… I would like to suggest that the Director allow us to choose a friendly, capable author, or the Reader’s Digest, and proceed with a book based on this case.

A carefully written factual book would do much to preserve the true history of this case. While it will not dispel or put down future rumors, it would certainly help to have a book of this nature on college and high school library shelves so that the future would be protected.*

The F.B.I. launched a smear campaign to defame Dr. King and marginalize critics of the investigation, starting with Coretta. DeLoach suggested a friendly media contact should be told that Coretta King and Ralph Abernathy were “plotting” to garner media attention and “keep the money coming in to Mrs. King” by claiming a conspiracy was behind the assassination.

For a quarter of a century, details of the killing steadily emerged, only to be downplayed or ignored. Then, in December of 1993, on Prime Time with Sam Donaldson, Loyd Jowers confessed his role in the murder of Dr. King.

Jowers was a former policeman turned restauranteur. He once owned Jim’s Grill, on South Main Street in Memphis. The back door of Jim’s Grill opened onto a vacant lot overlooking the Lorraine Motel where King was shot. Jowers said he was paid $100,000 for his help by Memphis businessman Frank Camille Liberto. Jowers alleged the involvment of James Barger, his former partner on the force, and officer Earl Clark, a long-time friend of Jowers. Jowers also alleged the participation of Marrell McCullough, from the 111th M.I.G., working as an undercover Memphis policeman. You’ve already seen a picture of McCullough and you didn’t even know it. He’s on Andrew Young’s left in the photo above.

Although Jowers had confessed to a capital offense for which there is no statute of limitations, he was not questioned by Memphis authorities or the F.B.I. Why generate a record? Jowers was old and ill. All they had to do was wait.

But there was still Coretta King.

The King family declared that James Ray was innocent, and Coretta King asked President Clinton for a new, open inquiry into the death of her husband — a Truth Commission, modeled on the reconciliation process adopted in South Africa to heal the wounds of apartheid. Instead, the Justice Department conducted a narrow inquiry that answered no questions and attacked critics. “Shut up,” the Department explained. In some quarters, Coretta King was characterized as a pathetic figure who had fallen under the spell of conspiracy theorists. On the 30th anniversary of the assassination, The New York Times claimed falsely that Ray had admitted firing the shot which killed King. The paper bemoaned the doubtful “fact” that:

A certain awkwardness attends this year’s commemoration. The King family, which remained in Atlanta for services there, has embraced Mr. Ray’s claim of innocence and his contention that he was, at most, an unwitting tool of a conspiracy that authorities have either failed to uncover or refused to unmask… (Steve Barnes, “Young and Old, of Varied Colors, Honor Dr. King,” The New York Times, 4/5/1998)

Who would find the King family’s position awkward?

The King family filed a civil suit against Jowers, seeking $100 in damages. On December 8, 1999, Jowers was found guilty. The New York Times reported the verdict on December 9, on page A23, next to the weather and the national classified ads. The story concluded with a broad slap at the King family, the judge, the attorneys, and the jury by quoting author Gerald Posner**:

It distresses me greatly that the legal system was used in such a callous and farcical manner in Memphis. If the King family wanted a rubber stamp of their own view of the facts, they got it.

On December 10, the Times ran a second article with more psycho-babble from Posner. People “want to embrace the sweeping conspiracy theory” because “it matches the stature of the man and somehow gives even more meaning and power to his death.”

James Ray died in prison on April 23, 1998. Loyd Jowers died on May 20, 2000.

Coretta King died on January 31, 2006. Sadly, it is a measure of her importance that in the years to come, she will be intermittently and respectfully ridiculed when the subject of her husband’s murder arises.

* The Bureau selected Gerold Frank, who wrote An American Death — the King assassination equivalent of the Warren Report on the murder of John Kennedy.
** Posner wrote Killing the Dream — the King assassination equivalent of the House Select Committee’s 1979 report on the murder of John Kennedy.

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