This is a very long and detailed and thoughtful accounting of the assassination of Martin Luther King 50 years ago. The portion below is a sampling of the complete article. The original title of this item was: WHO KILLED MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND WHY? Read more here
02 April 2018 | William Pepper| Ratical.org via Popular Resistance
The Execution Of Martin Luther King
Talk Given At Modern Times Bookstore, San Francisco, CA,
February 3, 2003
Thank you. And good evening. This story actually begins with Vietnam in 1966. As a very much younger person I was there as a journalist and didn’t publish anything whilst I was there, but waited until I got back to the United States.
Then I wrote a number of articles. One of them appeared in a muckraking magazine called Ramparts, that had its home in this city, published by Warren Hinkle [W.H. background parts I and II] in those days. It was called “The Children of Vietnam.” That is what started me down the slippery slope of the saga of Martin Luther King; his work during the last year, and his death. And then an investigation which has gone on since 1978.
King Opposes The Vietnam War, Knowing The Costs To Himself
When Martin King saw the Ramparts piece he was at a—there are different stories of actually where he was—but I think he was at Atlanta Airport on his way to the West Indies and he was traveling with Bernard Lee, his bodyguard.
They were having a meal and he was going through his mail, according to Bernard, and he came upon this issue of Ramparts, January 1st, 1967. It had in it the piece that I wrote called “The Children of Vietnam.” Bernard said as he started to thumb through it he stopped and was visibly moved. He pushed his food away. Bernard said, “What’s the matter Martin, aren’t you hungry? Is there something wrong with the food?” And he said, “No. I’ve lost my appetite. I may have lost the ability to appreciate food altogether until we end this wretched war.”
Then he asked to meet with me and asked me to open my files to him that went well beyond what was published in the Ramparts piece in terms of photographs. Some of you probably saw, if you’re old enough to remember, a number of those photographs. Portions of them used to appear on lampposts and windows of burned and deformed children. That was what gave him pause. He hadn’t had a chance to read the text at that point but it was the photographs that stopped him.
The introduction of the article was by Benjamin Spock. It resulted, ultimately, in a Committee of Responsibility bringing over a hundred Vietnamese children, war-injured children to this country and our placing them in hospitals around the nation. This was so that people would have a chance to see first-hand what their tax dollars were purchasing.
On the way to Cambridge to open Vietnam Summer, an anti-war project, we rode from Brown University (where he had delivered a sermon at the chapel there) and I continued the process of showing him these photographs and anecdotes of what I had seen when I was in the country.
And he wept, he openly wept. He was so visibly shaken by what was happening that it was difficult for him to retain composure. And of course that passion came out in his speech on April 4th, 1967 at Riverside Church where he said that his native land had become the greatest purveyor of violence on the face of the earth. Quoting Thoreau he said we have come to a point where we use massively improved means to accomplish unimproved ends and what we should be doing is focusing on not just the neighborhood that we have created but making that worldwide neighborhood into a brotherhood. And we were going entirely in the opposite direction and this was what he was pledging to fight against.
We spoke very early in the morning following that Riverside address and he said, “Now you know they’re all going to turn against me. We’re going to lose money. SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] will lose all of its corporate contributions. All the major civil rights leaders are going to turn their back on me and all the major media will start to tarnish and to taint and to attack me. I will be called everything even up to and including a traitor.” So he said, “We must persevere and build a new coalition that can be effective in this course of peace and justice.”
That coalition came to be known as the National Conference for New Politics. It was an umbrella organization and it held its first—and last—convention in Chicago over the Labor Day weekend of 1967. It had 5,000 delegates, maybe the largest convention of people ever assembled in the history of this country, at the Palmer House in Chicago. They came from every walk of life, every socio-economic class, every racial group, every ethnic group. The purpose was to form this umbrella coalition that would effectively coordinate a massive third-party political campaign against the Johnson Administration and Johnson’s re-election; but at the same time develop grassroots organizing capabilities in the communities across America.
It wasn’t to be—although it continued and struggled for the period of a year—but it wasn’t to be because of government’s wiliness and our naïveté. We never appreciated the extent to which government would go to undermine and undercut that kind of movement. They were responsible for the formation of a first black caucus. That black caucus was largely led by agente provocateurswho came from the Blackstone Rangers, organizations of that sort in Chicago. And they corraled each black delegate who came in and brought them into a room and formed this unity of all-black delegates and this commitment to vote as a block and introduce resolutions as a block.
We thought, many of us, that this was a good thing because this was typical and representative of a growing black awareness, particularly urban awareness. Although in the caucus they of course brought in rural black leaders as well. We felt this was healthy and there would be then this block that would vote and introduce the concerns of the black community across America. We didn’t know that it was government-induced and government-sponsored and government-paid for and that the leaders were gangsters. Blackstone Rangers would surface again and again in the course of the movement as capable of disrupting and causing havoc on behalf of their employers.
Martin delivered the keynote address at the convention. I introduced him and he delivered this address and the importance of this movement. As he was speaking a note was passed over my shoulder to me and I read it and it said, ‘Get him out of here after he finishes his speech or we will take him hostage and humiliate him before the world.’ They were so afraid that if this man stayed on for the substantive part of the convention that he, as a unifier, might bridge the differences and might overcome the provocation that was designed to disrupt the convention.
But I really felt at that point I had no choice. It was the first tip-off of what was going on. But still [I thought these were] just angry, hostile urban blacks, disaffected with non-violence and who had a different way of looking at things and different tactics that they wanted to follow. I didn’t think at all that it was (of course) officially inspired. So we did get Martin out of the Palmer House very quickly after his speech and they went on with the convention.
It was all downhill from there. They forced through resolutions that simply were so antagonistic to sections of the movement and engendered such hostility that all the money dried up for that noble cause. They were successful.
That being the case, nevertheless we struggled and worked in that last year of his life. I remember the last time I saw him alive (I think it was in late February). He had already started to become involved in the sanitation workers strike. In his own mind he thought that this was the basis for the encampment of the poor people in Washington and this was a good launching pad. He sympathized with all the goals of the sanitation workers in Memphis.
We met at John Bennett’s study at Union Theological Chamber in New York. There was just four of us: Martin, myself, Benjamin Spock and Andrew Young. Most of the dialogue actually came between Martin and myself in terms of my probing him about ways of briding the gap between his commitment to peace and non-violence and that approach of Malcom[ X]’s which was confrontational and violent in self-defense.
We went away, with no resolution to the issue. And of course, the rest is history. He was assassinated on the fourth of April 1968, one year to the day (it’s interesting) from the time he delivered the Riverside speech.
We went to the memorials, Spock and I, and the funeral and then I walked away from political activity. I had had my fill of it.
Ben and Julian Bond and others went up to see Bobby Kennedy who had asked, invited us all to come. I didn’t know him in ’68. I knew him as a much younger person when I handled the campaign of his as a citizen’s chairmen in Westchester County in New York when he ran for the Senate. And I didn’t like him at all. I thought he was opportunistic and all those things that you have heard about Bobby Kennedy I thought were true. I saw them, confronted them, directly.
But the Bob Kennedy who was killed in ’68, I think was a very different person. I regard it as one of my sadnesses that I did not see him at the end. Because he had made an overture to Martin to run as a Vice-Presidential candidate with him. It was not generally known. But when he made his announcement, March I guess it was 15th or 16th, he made contact with Martin and I’m sure that contact was known.
Eight, nine years later [Ralph] Abernathy called me and asked me to go up to the prison with him. Actually [it was] ten [years], it was in late ’77, he asked me to go to the prison with him and interrogate James Earl Ray. I said, ‘This is a funny request Ralph. Ten years after the fact. Why would you want to do that? Do you have some questions about it? Isn’t Ray guilty?’ I didn’t know anything about the case. I didn’t want to know about it at that point.
He said, ‘I just have some questions. Will you come along with me?’ I still don’t fully understand why he did that. He said, ‘But I want you to interrogate him and I want to watch him when you do that.’ So I said, ‘Well, it’s going to take me some while to get up to speed on this case. Because I don’t know anything about it.’
He was very different than we expected to find. He was shy, docile, soft-spoken, thoughtful and not at all the kind of racist figure that had been depicted in the media. Not at all. He knew very little about weapons, very clearly had virtually no skill at all with them. He was a petty thief and burglar, hold-up man. But he was totally incompetent in that.It did take some time. In August of ’78, finally, we went and we went through this session of five hours intensive interrogation of James Earl Ray. His lawyer at the time, Mark Lane, was there. A body language specialist from Harvard, [Dr.] Howie Berens came and he sat in a corner, just watched James’ movements as I put him really through a rather rigorous, painful time.
He was known for showing up too late in supermarkets he wanted to stick up, the time-lock would already have been fixed on the safe [laughs]. The staff would say, ‘Look, there’s nothing we can do about this.’ [laughing throughout remainder of paragraph] And they said, ‘We’ll give you our money.’ He said, ‘I don’t want your money. I don’t want to rob working people. I want the money from this corporation.’ That type of thing.
He kept five bullets, typically, in his pistol. When he was arrested at Heathrow Airport he had five bullets in his pistol. He always kept the firing pin chamber empty. When I pressed him on that, a long time, he wouldn’t answer that question. Finally he admitted, with some embarrassment, that he kept the firing pin chamber empty because he shot himself in the foot once [laughs]. And he just didn’t want to do that again.
He was incompetent when it came to rifles. He had a virtually non-existent marksmanship score when he took his test in the Army. He didn’t know much about guns. When he was instructed to buy a weapon that became the throw-down gun in the assassination he bought a .243 Winchester rather than a thirty-ott-six [.30-06] that he was told to get. He didn’t know the difference between them. When he showed the weapon he had bought to Raul, who was controlling him, he sent him back to exchange it. It was a matter of record. He went back and exchanged this one rifle for another the next day. That’s not something he thought of himself. It just was the wrong gun. The guy wanted a .30-06 caliber rifle so they had a .30-06 rifle as the throw-down gun. So he had to go back and exchange it.
After the interview we became convinced, Abernathy and I became convinced that he was not the shooter. We didn’t know what other role he might have played. But it was clear he was not the assassin of Martin Luther King. This guy couldn’t have done that. But he raised so many questions that I had never heard raised before, that had never been answered, that I decided I would begin to go into Memphis and talk to some people, become familiar with the terrain and the crime scene and see if I could get some answers to those questions.
And I did. The more I began to probe around the more concerned I got about new questions that were unanswered. I had hoped that the Select Committee on Assassinations would solve that problem. Because they were in session at the time and I hoped they would solve it.