Sunday, January 9, 2011

2000: Government by Gunplay

This piece about the assassination of Dr. King was commissioned for Xtreme, a British magazine that never quite got off the ground. So technically, it's not really a re-run. As we recall previous political murders in light of recent events, it's worth considering that waiting until all the facts are out may not be an option. Sometimes, all the facts are never out.

To virtually nobody’s surprise, the US Department of Justice announced on June 8 that there was no conspiracy in the death of the late Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior, who is honored with a national holiday, even here in Arizona. At least, that was the gist of the story as reported by those news outlets which bothered to cover it at all. A Justice Department spokesman hastened to point out that they didn’t find that there was absolutely no conspiracy whatsoever. It’s just that they weren’t able to find one after investigating for the last eighteen months.

It turns out that Attorney General Janet Reno had asked her investigators to look into only two allegations: One, whether a Memphis barman named Lloyd Jowers had been telling the truth when he confessed to being a part of a conspiracy to assassinate King, which included members of the Mafia and the federal government. And two, whether a former FBI man named Donald Wilson had been telling the truth when he claimed to have recovered documents from the car of accused lone-nut assassin James Earl Ray, which tended to corroborate Ray’s version of the events.

So the DOJ looked into these things, and only these things, and decided that neither man had been telling the truth, so, end of story. It doesn’t mean there was no plot to kill Dr. King, but they’re pretty sure it didn’t involve either of these guys, and they didn’t feel particularly curious about going any further than that. Conveniently for the DOJ, both Ray and Jowers are now dead, so the trail is getting pretty cold in any case. Inconveniently for the DOJ, a Memphis jury decided in December 1999 that as far as they were concerned, Lloyd Jowers had indeed been involved with the Mafia and the government in the assassination plot, and awarded damages to the family of Dr. King (who had asked for a token $100 in their efforts to get the truth out).

As it turns out, that was the third time a serious investigation found a conspiracy in the death of Dr. King. The House of Representatives had issued a report in 1979 that found a “95% probability” that persons other than Ray were involved. And in 1993, the television network HBO sponsored a mock trial of James Earl Ray which found him not guilty. (Ray had pleaded guilty in 1968, but changed his plea three days later; he claimed that his corrupt, mob-connected attorney had coerced him. He spent the rest of his life in an unsuccessful effort to have his day in court.)

There were problems with each of these three investigations, mostly stemming from the fact that the US Government has a lot to hide in this matter. What cannot be brushed aside is the documented history of official hostility to Dr. King and his work. Specifically, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover regarded King as a communist, “the most dangerous man in America, and a moral degenerate.” And to deal with the most dangerous man in America, the FBI engaged in a decade-long campaign of sabotage, surveillance and harassment, culminating in an unsuccessful attempt to blackmail him into suicide: “There is only one way out for better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

With that friendly invitation declined, Hoover issued a memo calling for King’s “removal from the national scene.” And that removal was greatly facilitated by an FBI press release to Memphis papers mocking King for staying in white-owned hotels, and wondering why he didn’t stay at the black-owned Lorraine Motel. The newspapers helpfully passed this criticism along (without noting its source), and King’s entourage duly checked into the Lorraine for what would be his last visit to Memphis.

On the day before his arrival, someone who claimed to be working for King called the Lorraine and switched rooms, so that King’s lodging was directly opposite Lloyd Jowers’ diner. Of course, none of the actual entourage knew anything about this. And on the final day of his life, the security team from the Memphis Police Department, which shadowed King every time he came to town, was withdrawn.

That afternoon, according to testimony in King vs Jowers, two men approached the Fire Station across from the Lorraine Motel, and showed credentials from US Army intelligence. They carried two briefcases, which they said contained photographic equipment, and positioned themselves on the roof of the station, where they would have a clear view of the assassination scene. Needless to say, none of their “photographs” have been made available to investigators.

The attorney for the King family asked the jury how a simple drifter like James Earl Ray could get Dr. King’s security detail removed, and have Army officers stationed overlooking the scene. The jury thought that one over–for about three hours. Then they found against Jowers. Said one juror: “We all thought it was a pretty cut and dried case and that there were a lot of other people involved.”

That’s pretty much what the jury in the HBO trial decided, when they acquitted Ray in the matter of the King assassination. The very idea of a mock trial on TV can be mocked, and has been, but at the time, both sides found it deadly serious. A retired judge presided, and actual Memphis prosecutors handled the case against Ray. The jury was selected from the Memphis voter rolls, and as many witnesses who were still alive gave their testimony. If the Department of Justice is inclined to dismiss the importance of this trial now, they certainly found it important enough back in 1993. The hotel where jurors were sequestered rented the entire floor above them to members of the FBI.

As for the House investigation, it was somewhat hampered by the fact that important witnesses kept ending up dead. And unfortunately, the FBI was less than fully cooperative with the investigation. But based on the testimony of one Russell G. Byers, who had previously told of being offered a contract on Dr. King’s life, the House Committee decided there was a probable conspiracy in the case. But they had run out of time and money–Congress had created the Committee with a specific deadline–and so they were unable to investigate further.

But Jowers and Byers are not the only ones to have told of their involvement in this crime. In 1989, Jules Roy Kimble also confessed that he had been part of a conspiracy to kill Dr. King, which included members of the FBI, the CIA and the Mafia. He corroborated important parts of Ray’s story, particularly when he confirmed that Ray had been seen in the company of a CIA identities specialist named Raoul Miora.

Ray had consistently maintained that he was framed for the crime by a handler named Raoul, who employed him in a gunrunning scheme. It was in that capacity that he purchased the alleged murder weapon. Raoul also provided Ray with a series of aliases which the small-time crook would have been unable to obtain on his own. Each of the names were of actual Canadian citizens who were dead ringers for Ray, in one case down to identical scars. He had information about these men which could only have come from confidential military records. It was not until Kimble stepped forward that Ray's Raoul story was definitively corroborated.

The documents that FBI agent Wilson claimed to have recovered from Ray’s car also mentioned Raoul. But in the end, the Justice Department seized on inconsistencies in the accounts given by both Wilson and Jowers, and did their best to sweep the whole case under the rug once again. It’s certainly understandable that they would try to do so, since the DOJ is the parent agency of the FBI. And even if both Ray and Jowers are now dead, many in the US government who have spent the past 32 years trying to cover up the truth are still very much alive.

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