Who really murdered Martin Luther King?


An Act of State: the Execution of Martin Luther King
By William F. Pepper
Verso, 2003
334 pages, $49.95 (hb)


Around 5pm, April 4, 1968, John McFerren was shopping at the LL&L Produce Company in Memphis, Tennessee, when he heard the store's owner, Frank Liberto, shouting on the phone, "Shoot the son of a bitch when he comes on the balcony". An hour later, Martin Luther King, the United States' highest-profile civil rights leader, had been shot dead on the balcony of his Memphis motel room.

It is not surprising that Liberto, with Mafia connections, could be mixed up in the dirty art of murder, but more noteworthy was the person on the other end of the telephone: Memphis Police Department (MPD) lieutenant Earl Clark. Noteworthy, too, were the two US Army special forces sniper teams with rifles trained on King.

As a jury found in 1999, the cast of the assassination plot was wide indeed, involving the criminal underworld, the "City of Memphis, the State of Tennessee and the government of the United States".

Yet the 20-year investigation by lawyer William Pepper, which resulted in the court's verdict of conspiracy, may as well not have happened. The US government and the corporate media have suppressed the result in favour of the official fantasy that a lone assassin, jail escapee James Earl Ray, was paid by two St Louis racists to kill King.

Like robbers pointing at an innocent bystander and shouting "Stop, thief!", city, state and federal agencies may well prefer to jail the innocent to hide their involvement in an assassination, but Pepper has shown that Ray was set up as a "patsy" to take the fall for a state conspiracy to murder King.

The "authorised version" of Ray's alleged shooting of King from the bathroom window of a rooming house opposite the Lorraine Motel came apart at the seams with each investigative tug by Pepper. Witnesses saw gunsmoke coming from the bushes behind the rooming house, not the bathroom. Ray was seen leaving in the suspect car but, unfortunately for the approved script, this was before the shooting.

The prosecution's chief witness, an occupant of the rooming house who "identified" Ray as he allegedly ran from the bathroom after the shooting, was higher than a kite from alcohol at the time and incapable of recognising the day of the week, let alone someone from a passing glimpse. The bullet which ripped into King's jaw did not match the rifle allegedly (and very conveniently for the prosecution) dropped by Ray in his haste to flee.

As the case against Ray collapsed, the evidence for a conspiracy mounted. King, contrary to his usual travelling practice of staying in secluded rooms, was allocated an exposed room, at the last minute and allegedly on instructions from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (King's church-based civil rights organisation), on the executive of which there was an FBI informer. Witnesses saw a man (Earl Clark) running immediately after the fatal shot from the bushes to a waiting MPD squad car. They saw another man (Clark's still unidentified MPD colleague who fired the fatal shot) driving off eight minutes after the shooting, past police barricades, as MPD officers looked on with unconcern at an unidentified car leaving a supposedly secure crime scene.

Crucial witnesses had begun to "disappear" from the time of the shooting. A taxi driver who witnessed the shot coming from bushes, not the bathroom, fell from his car in suspicious circumstances that night. An investigative journalist on the trail of organised crime's role in the assassination was murdered in 1971. Another witness almost died in a car accident, her wheel nuts deliberately loosened. A former FBI agent who came forward with important new evidence of conspiracy was threatened. One of the army snipers, a heavy drinker who had begun talking in bars about the army's role in the plot, "disappeared" in 1979.

While he was in prison, Ray twice received offers of money (US$50,000, then $220,000) plus parole to confess guilt, and so abandon his demand for a re-trial. Ray turned down the chance for wealth and freedom, determined to prove his innocence. Having failed to buy Ray's silence, two contracts were taken out on his life, one through the Memphis Mafia and one through the FBI. Both fell through and it was left to cirrhosis of the liver to end Ray's life, and his chance for a re-trial, in 1998.

Pepper's only recourse now was to get the King family to take out a civil action against the one man, Lloyd Jowers, who was willing to implicate himself in return for immunity from prosecution and so open up the legal process to expose the full conspiracy.

Jowers, owner of Jim's Grill near the motel, was in debt to Liberto. To square his account with the Mafia, he was enrolled to assist with looking after the murder weapon and handling the government money paid to the Mafia for its role in the assassination.

Jowers testified that Liberto had arranged for him and the two MPD officers to wait in the bushes and for one of the MPD officers to shoot King. Pepper also exposed the Mafia's role as being designed to provide the US government with "plausible denial" in the plot.

The jury found that a conspiracy to assassinate King had indeed been carried out by bit players like Jowers and the Mafia, under orders from a task force of "national security" agencies including the FBI, the MPD, military intelligence and the US Army's special forces. The latter had tried to assassinate King earlier in 1965, at a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, as part of their covert operations against domestic political dissidents (which included assassinations of black community leaders).

The FBI had been spying on, and infiltrating, left-wing, anti-racist and anti-war movements and parties throughout the 1960s. King's home and hotel rooms had been bugged by the FBI for tasty morsels of extra-marital scandal to, in their words, "neutralise King as an effective Negro leader". Army Intelligence, a 2300-strong covert organisation which spied on hundreds of organisations and 19 million individuals, had also watched King since 1947.

King found himself in the gunsights in March 1968 after the Army Psychological Operations Group had discovered in 1967, by interviewing hundreds of arrested "rioters", that King was the most popular leader amongst urban blacks. King had expanded his campaigns from civil rights in the south to economic struggles (he was in Memphis to support a black garbage workers' strike) and national campaigns such as a "poor people's march" on Washington.

It was King's public opposition to the Vietnam War, however, and his move towards a socialist critique of US society (the "problem of racism, problem of economic exploitation and problem of war are all tied together", he had concluded) which prompted the US Army and FBI to step up their alert status on King in 1968 to "threat to national security". The army sniper teams had been told to "take out" King because he was "an enemy of the US who wanted to bring down the government". By assassinating King, they hoped to decapitate a potential revolutionary movement of black urban revolt.

King was not killed by one man filled with race hate but by a system (capitalism) filled with hate against those who threaten its "national security" to make profits, at home or abroad. The African Americans who erupted into open rebellion in 80 cities the night that King was shot, knew this instinctively. Pepper's brilliant book has confirmed it.

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