By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media
Editor’s Note: As the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination nears, questions continue to linger about the government’s involvement.
Coretta Scott King never totally bought the final and official judgment of history that James Earl Ray was the lone assassin of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She repeatedly expressed a burning desire to know who really killed King. That desire wasn’t buried with her. This quote from her was on the King Center website, even after her passing in 2006: “There is abundant evidence that there was a high level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband.”
Coretta was hardly alone in that belief. As we approach the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination on April 4 a legion of conspiracy buffs, black skeptics, some civil rights leaders, and nearly one quarter of Congress demanded to know more about the circumstances of King’s killing. Some two years ago, more than 50 House representatives endorsed a bill by then Georgia Democrat Cynthia McKinney to reopen the King assassination. The bill didn’t go anywhere. But the conspiracy theory about King’s assassination is still very much alive and well.
Americans certainly deserve to know the whole truth about the killing of King. But there are two truths about the murder. The first is too painful for those who fervently believe that James Earl Ray was a Lee Harvey Oswald-type patsy and that the government orchestrated King’s killing. Yet, the evidence is still overwhelming that Ray was the triggerman. His fingerprints were on the alleged murder weapon. He was at the crime scene and he confessed. At different times before his death, Ray gave conflicting, confusing and muddled accounts of his activities and whereabouts at the time of the murder. His protests of innocence and frame-ups sounded like a discredited man’s desperate effort to salve his conscience, grab media attention, and cash in on the notoriety of the case. It worked. Ray’s public thrashing-about on the King murder sent conspiracy buffs stampeding to the barricades, shouting that the government killed King. The King family gave Ray’s much belated feigning of innocence credence when Coretta took the stand on his behalf at a civil trial in Memphis in 1999.
Ray’s guilt, however, doesn’t let the government off the hook. The verdict of history stands that Ray killed King. But the other truth is to know what government agencies did or didn’t know about the King killing. The House Select Committee on Assassination that investigated King’s murder ordered the files sealed for 50 years. They are still sealed. The files might answer many questions about the secret war the FBI waged against King from the late 1950s to his murder.
The assault on King was more than just FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover acting out his paranoid obsessions against King. It was a war against the Black movement. Hoover decided that the cheap and dirty way to win that war was by discrediting the most respected and admired symbol of that movement. Hoover assigned Assistant FBI director William Sullivan the dirty job of getting the goods on King. Sullivan branded King as the “most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation.” In his book My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI, Sullivan described the inner circle of men assigned to get King. The group was made up of special agents mainly drawn from the Washington and Atlanta FBI offices. Their job was to monitor all of King’s activities. Much of their dirty tactics are well known. They deluged him with wiretaps, physical surveillance, poison-pen letters, threats, harassment, intimidation and smear sexual leaks to the media. Even at the time of his murder, Hoover had more plans to intensify the spy campaign against King. Decades later, Sullivan still publicly defended the FBI’s war against him, and made no apology for it. We know only the bare outline of what the FBI actually did toward King in his final days.
Then there’s the actual assassination investigation. FBI officials who directed the illegal spy campaign against King and the FBI agent who played a major role in running the program in Atlanta were also involved in every phase of the assassination investigation. That raises even more questions about the scope, or lack thereof, of the investigation. The re-opening of the King assassination won’t uncover any smoking gun proof that the government directly issued orders to kill King. But full disclosure by government agencies involved in the investigation of King’s assassination at the very least could allay some of the lingering doubts and suspicions that government agencies didn’t tell the complete truth about King’s murder.
However, even this won’t absolve the FBI of its disgraceful, destructive, and illegal campaign against King. The climate of suspicion and hostility it helped nurture toward the Civil Rights Movement made it possible for Ray to murder King. The public disclosure of that would help fulfill Coretta’s final wish, and that is to know what really happened to her husband. Forty years after King’s assassination, many are still waiting to find out.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).