Over the past decade, proposals for reparations for slavery have entered the political mainstream, culminating recently in a San Francisco plan to award $5 million to each eligible black resident. But despite the prevalence of liberal virtue-signaling about restorative justice, more historically recent state crimes against black Americans have received less attention.
I’m referring to the unsettling reality that throughout the upheaval of the 1960s, the US government waged an all-out covert war against the black freedom movement. The FBI’s campaign of illegal surveillance, harassment, blackmailing, subversion, and violence—including the extrajudicial execution of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Chicago in 1969—under the auspices of COINTELPRO is largely a matter of historical record.
So, at this point, are the FBI’s extensive attempts to defame and discredit Martin Luther King, Jr. More enigmatic but equally important are the questions that still surround Dr. King’s assassination. In the nearly six decades since he was killed, he has become one of the premier secular saints of American political culture. But one condition of this canonization has been that we accept the official story that he was killed by a lone gunman, James Earl Ray.
King’s family—of which I am a member—has never believed the official story. For decades, his late widow (and my cousin), Coretta Scott King, suspected federal government involvement. In 1999, she and other surviving relatives put these suspicions to the test in a civil suit filed against Loyd Jowers, a Memphis restaurant owner who had claimed he had been paid by a local mobster to organize King’s assassination. According to Jowers, a group met at the restaurant to plan the assassination. Among them was Memphis Police Lt. Earl Clark, a skilled marksman and associate of Frank Liberto, a member of the Marcello crime family of New Orleans; and Marrell McCollough, an undercover police officer and CIA operative who posed as a member of a militant black political group known as the Invaders. McCollough was later present at the Lorraine Motel and was seen kneeling over King after the shooting.
After the trial, Coretta Scott King stated: “There is abundant evidence of a major high-level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr.” Martin and Coretta’s children, Martin Luther King III and Bernice King, noted “the seriousness with which US intelligence agencies planned the murder” of their father. According to Coretta and her children, the “high-level conspiracy” to assassinate Martin Luther King involved the FBI, the Memphis Police Department, and the Marcello crime family of New Orleans, with James Earl Ray serving as a lone patsy. Since the Jowers trial, however, the fact that King’s family rejected the official assassination narrative—and a Memphis jury finding in their favor—have been sidelined from mainstream coverage. It’s well past time to re-examine the facts of the case.
The official story is that Ray stalked King from Los Angeles on March 17 to Memphis on April 3, where he checked into a seedy rooming house above Jim’s Grill, the restaurant owned by Loyd Jowers. On April 4, just before 6:00 p.m., he barricaded himself in a bathroom, aimed his rifle out of the window, and fatally shot King. Ray fled the scene in a white Mustang to Atlanta, ditched the car, and hid in Toronto for a month.
He then escaped to Portugal and later England, where authorities caught him boarding a flight to Brussels. Ray’s fingerprints were found on a rifle, a scope, binoculars, a beer can, and a copy of the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal. There were some forensic holes in the case: The FBI was never able to match the bullet that killed King with the rifle allegedly ditched by Ray on the steps of the Canipe Amusement Company, next door to the rooming house. And Ray’s fingerprints were also never identified in the room he had rented at the rooming house. No matter: Ray entered a guilty plea, and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Three days after his sentencing, Ray fired his attorney, Percy Foreman, and said he had been pressured into pleading guilty. From the beginning, Coretta was among those who accepted Ray’s claim to have been a patsy, and she made regular visits to him in prison. In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, or HSCA, investigated the King assassination and concluded that Ray had carried out the killing as part of a plot to collect a bounty from two St. Louis racists. However, in 2012, G. Robert Blakey, who had been the staff director to the HSCA, admitted that he had been misled by the CIA, which had failed to disclose that a government liaison to the HSCA, George Joannides, had a CIA background. Blakey told the (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger that “reasonable people today, not just conspiracy theorists, believe that more individuals than James Earl Ray were involved in King’s assassination.”
There is no question that the FBI had close connections to the Memphis Police Department in the period leading up to King’s assassination. The MPD’s intelligence unit was founded by E.H. Arkin under the guidance of FBI agent William Lawrence, who monitored King. Frank Holloman, the head of MPD at the time of King’s killing, was an FBI veteran who oversaw the expansion of the department’s internal-security division and promoted aggressive tactics against black activists in Memphis.
On March 29, 1968, as recounted in King family attorney William F. Pepper’s 2018 book An Act of State, the FBI official G.C. Moore recommended the release of a news item suggesting King planned to stay at the white-owned Holiday Inn, with the aim of influencing King to instead stay at the black-owned Lorraine Motel when he returned to Memphis on April 3. King was initially meant to stay in a secluded room at the Lorraine, but was moved to Room 306 with an exposed balcony after a call supposedly from the organization he led, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, requested the change. According to Pepper, this call was made by an FBI infiltrator working under Holloman’s orders. The infiltrator was also charged with ensuring King was out on the balcony before 6:00 p.m. and was wearing a tie so that he could be identified by the assassin.
The day King was shot, Memphis Police Department failed to provide its usual security squad and withdrew other key police security units. Detective Ed Reddit was also removed from his surveillance post just before the shooting, and a hoax call from downtown drew police attention away from the Lorraine Motel. The result was a 30-minute delay in police response to the shooting that allowed the killer—or killers—to escape.
Some eyewitness accounts suggested that the fatal shot came not from the bathroom of the nearby rooming house, as the official story maintains, but rather from the bushes behind Jim’s Grill. Eyewitnesses reported seeing a man crouching in the bushes and running away after the shot, and hearing a sound like a firecracker coming from the same area. The Rev. James Orange claimed to have seen smoke rising from the bushes seconds after the shot, and journalist Kay Black alleged that the brush area was cleared the morning after the shooting. Immediately following King’s assassination, the FBI assumed control of the investigation, despite it being a state crime. An autopsy was never performed on the body.
Given all of these irregularities, it’s unsurprising that, as with the JFK assassination, many in the general public had doubts about the official story. Cartha DeLoach, the FBI agent leading the investigation, suggested to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that the agency should sponsor a book to tell the “true story” of King’s assassination and discredit claims of a conspiracy being made by Coretta Scott and other King associates like Ralph Abernathy. The task went to William Bradford Huie, an editor at The American Mercury, who in He Slew the Dreamer (1970) portrayed Ray as a violent, racist stalker of King who acted alone. Huie worked closely with Ray’s fired attorney, Percy Foreman—who, as it happens, had also been counsel for Jack Ruby earlier the same decade.
It is here that the tangled conspiratorial web encompasses organized crime as well as law enforcement. In addition to representing two of the most notorious accused assassins of the era, Foreman was a longtime mob lawyer. For his part, his client Jack Ruby was connected to the Marcello crime family of New Orleans by way of restaurant owner Joseph Campisi, at whose establishment Ruby dined the night before JFK was assassinated. Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann’s 2009 book, Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination, alleges that the family’s boss, Carlos Marcello, played a role in King’s assassination as well as Kennedy’s, brokering a deal in which white supremacist Joseph A. Milteer paid James Earl Ray to carry out the killing.
The extent of mafia money and influence within the corridors of American power in the middle of the past century is a familiar story, told in fictional form in iconic movies like The Godfather. Given the extent of these connections, it wouldn’t be surprising if the shadowy realms of the government now known to have been involved in illegal covert activities—such as COINTELPRO and the CIA’s Operation CHAOS—turned to the mafia to handle certain jobs; for one thing, they could offer the services of experienced hit men sworn to omertà. For his part, Hoover famously denied for decades that the mafia existed, whether because he owed any mob bosses favors—or simply because he preferred to stay focused on political subversives like King.
It remains to be seen if declassified documents ever offer indisputable evidence backing up the King family’s long-standing conviction that Ray did not act alone. But regardless of declassification, we do know that the FBI and other units of the domestic intelligence apparatus wiretapped and harassed King and many of his close collaborators for years prior to his assassination. The FBI’s role in the cold-blooded killing of Fred Hampton and its extensive attempts to provoke internecine violence within black organizations also aren’t in dispute. Despite that, the FBI has never truly been held accountable for COINTELPRO or other unconstitutional operations. To this day, it continues to wiretap and infiltrate organizations and entrap individuals of all political stripes viewed as subversive.
The Democratic Party never misses a chance to claim the mantle of the black freedom movement, but today it shows little to no interest in reining in the bureau that wiretapped and blackmailed King and may have even played a part in his murder. That’s because this unaccountable organization is proving useful in persecuting the party’s enemies on the political right, which have been extensively targeted in recent years. Short of a full reckoning with the crimes of the domestic intelligence state, including its possible involvement in the murder of Dr. King—my relative, and one of America’s greatest political heroes—such misdeeds will no doubt continue.