Who Killed Martin Luther King? An American Murder Mystery

Just a few weeks before Ray arrived in Memphis, the man who would soon become president of the SCLC, Ralph David Abernathy, had grown worried that the FBI threat against King had intensified again. Something was wrong. King seemed darkly preoccupied. Just a month before the assassination, King and Abernathy took a brief break in Mexico to rest up before the Poverty Campaign was to begin in earnest. Waking up late one night to find King missing from their suite, Abernathy finally found his friend lost in thought on the balcony of the seaside hotel, staring out at the sea in the dark. King “stared alone from a high balcony until nearly dawn and evaded Abernathy’s questions about what was wrong — pointing enigmatically to a rock in Acapulco harbor, then singing “Rock of Ages,’” writes King biographer Taylor Branch. The old hymn about approaching death, sung in the ominous dark of three in the morning, worried King’s longtime partner. Branch writes that King’s worrisome behavior “alarmed Abernathy enough to make discreet inquiries about whether the FBI may have threatened King directly again, but he found no such reports.”

What is now known is that FBI Direct J. Edgar Hoover had secretly defied President Johnson in early January and began intensive surveillance of King. He nearly doubled the FBI field offices dedicated to the poverty campaign. Men like FBI agent Murtagh in Atlanta, James Harrison in the SCLC headquarters and Agent 500 at the Lorraine, among so many others, all tracked and surveilled King. What is less known is the extent to which Army Intelligence was running a parallel operation against King. The ’s Steve Tompkins spent 16 months conducting nearly 200 interviews and followed “a trail of memos, memoirs, diaries and meeting notes scattered around the country in military archives, the Library of Congress, presidential libraries and private collections.” Tompkins was able to outline an Army Intelligence apparatus perhaps as paranoid and preoccupied with King as the FBI in King’s last year.

Tanks roll through Detroit in July 1967. (photo: Ullstein Bild, Getty Images)

Tompkins explains how Army Intelligence performed a sort of social biopsy in the wake of the Detroit uprising in July 1967, where 43 Americans would die in what became at times urban guerrilla war between black Detroiters and the U.S. military and National Guard. “Tank crews blasted away at entrenched snipers with .50-caliber guns early today,” began the front-page story in the on July 26, 1967, during the height of the conflict. The Detroit uprising followed closely on the heels of the Newark revolt, whose uneasy armistice was reached only six days before the Motor City became engulfed in battle. The Newark violence claimed 26 lives, bringing the two-week death toll to nearly 70 in just two American cities.

Troops in Newark

After the Detroit battle subsided in late July, the Army’s Psychological Operations Group, dressed as civilians, interviewed nearly 500 black men detained for firing rifles and shotguns, according to documents reviewed by Tompkins. The detainees, rounded up into a warehouse north of Detroit, were asked a series of questions. Army investigators were most surprised by the answer to one of the questions: “Who is your favorite Negro leader?” The answer “stunned Army Intelligence,” writes Tompkins. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the clear favorite — 178 of the men named him. Men considered more radical, such as Carmichael and Malcolm X, came in a distant second and fourth.”

In his first major speech after the summer’s violence, King would adopt the critical framework of the “Black Power” wing of the movement and refer to the black inner-city, epitomized by Detroit, as a colony, subordinated to and distinct from the United States, yet internal to it. “[T]he ghetto is a domestic colony,” he would tell an audience weeks after the battle in Detroit. This was a new formulation for King. The colonial framework wasn’t simply a matter of nomenclature, especially in the wake of agents of the state, and the military itself, having just entered the colony to subdue it. The 1960s was a time of intense anti-colonial rebellion throughout the globe, especially in Africa, as the white European empires of the last several centuries were receding yet further in the face of armed black revolts in South Africa, Rhodesia and Angola. The Algerian uprising of the 1950s against their white French colonizers had been celebrated in a controversial film a year earlier in 1966, , which later became require viewing for Black Panthers. And the Vietnam war, which King had bravely come out against in the spring of 1967, had begun as anti-colonial struggle against the French. The mid-century was a time of intense upheaval in the white European colonies in Africa and Asia, and now King was analogizing the black “ghetto” as a new type of colony, one internal to the imperial power but whose fraternity might well be with South Africa, where rebel leader Nelson Mandela had recently been imprisoned, or Vietnam, whose French colonizer had been replaced by an American force. King was internationalizing the black struggle.

Carmichael and Brown (center), with Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale and others

This new colonial framework of King’s, made in his keynote address at a conference of leftists and radicals in August, put him yet closer to radical firebrands like H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, who sat on the board of the conference. Carmichael had spent the weeks before the conference in Havana, “preparing,” he said, “groups of urban guerrillas for our defense in the cities.” This is why King’s “domestic colony” wasn’t simply an academic descriptor; it altered the fundamental relationship between the U.S. government and the “ghetto.” The latter, said leaders like Carmichael and Black Panther leader Huey Newton, was now in league with Cubans, Vietnamese, Palestinians and the millions of Africans repelling European colonial rule. “‘Black Power’ means that we see ourselves as part of the Third World,” said Carmichael, “that we see our struggle as closely related to liberation struggle around the world.” Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver would echo Carmichael, explaining, “From its inception, the Black Panther Party saw the condition of Blacks in an international context, recognizing that the same racist imperialism that people in Africa, Asia, Latin America were fighting against was victimizing Blacks in the United States.”

Dr. King still preached non-violence, of course, but he’d grown to explain the new violent revolts in America as “the language of the unheard.” Despite King’s non-violent victories in 1964 and 1965, “the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years,” he told an audience that April. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” he’d warned in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at the Riverside church, the most radical address he’d yet given, ominously one year to the day before his assassination. King saw neither the strategic nor moral value of so-called “riots” and revolts, but as early as the unrest of the previous summer he’d begun recognizing their inevitability as long as black Americans remained trapped in poverty and under threat of what he saw now as colonial violence in the form of police.

King even began exploring how the rage of the summer’s revolts could be harnessed into political productivity for his ambitious new anti-poverty crusade. “Mass civil disobedience can use rage as a constructive and creative force,” he offered at the annual Southern Christian Leadership Council conference two weeks after the armed rebellion in Detroit. It was, for King, a matter of channeling the rage he saw now as inevitable into a concentrated and productive force of nonviolent direct action in pursuit of the “radical redistribution of economic and political power” he now sought. After all, it was “purposeless to tell Negroes not to be enraged when they should be,” he told the crowd. Even King’s own SCLC staff “confessed shock,” writes Taylor Branch, at these sorts of proposals issued so quickly in the wake of Detroit.

Though he remained committed to nonviolence tactically, there was an anger in King. In November, he had to return to Birmingham to serve the remainder of a sentence stemming from his historic campaign in 1963, the ruling having been held up in the courts since. Returning to the Birmingham jail is a different King. He’s now in blue dungarees, no suit. He’s seen entering with three books: the , an economics text about the rising power of corporations, and , about the most successful, and bloodiest, slave revolt in the country’s history.

After finishing the brief Birmingham sentence, King began to be more public with his plans for April. “For years I labored with reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there,” he said. “Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society.” King warned that the previous victories, like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, “didn’t cost the nation anything” and that in April 1968 the occupation of Washington would “call for something of a restructuring of the architecture of American society. It is going to cost the nation something.” Barnstorming through poor and working-class America, King would tell audiences, “When we come to Washington in this campaign, we’re coming to .”

This was a revolution being described. King spoke soon after leaving jail, still in his rugged denim jacket, and began issuing his most dire warnings yet about what he expected to achieve with his Washington campaign in April. “We’ve got to make it known,” he bellowed, “that until our problem is solved, America may have many, many days ahead, but they will be filled with trouble. There will be no rest, there will be no tranquility in this country until the nation comes to terms with our problems.” King even warned of “methods to disrupt our cities if necessary” to “create the crisis that will force the nation to look at the situation.”

This was not Birmingham or Selma. King was envisioning a nationalization of the local campaigns of years before. King’s analysis and strategy was now intersectional, with capitalism and imperialism joining racism to form a more dense and broad complex of power that had to be dismantled. Earlier in 1967 he’d warned, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” An expansion of targets meant a proliferation of enemies, something that young radical Stokely Carmichael tried to explain to King in a private conversation picked up by Army Security Agency bugs. “You making a lot of new enemies,” warned Carmichael, as King’s message was expanding to include its new anti-war, anti-imperialist dimension. “When you tell him his war machine is nothing hired killers, you got trouble.”

Carmichael’s “war machine” was, indeed, focusing anew on King and his plans for Washington. According to Tompkins’ reporting, a week after King’s December 4 official announcement of the upcoming occupation in Washington officers met at the Pentagon to strategize, fearing the worst. After the open conflict in cities like Detroit and Newark of the previous summer, military planners worried that King’s campaign amounted to “plans to ignite violence and mayhem” that might surpass the violence of 1967. Ralph Stein, who was then top Army Intelligence analyst in the Pentagon’s Counterintelligence Analysis Bureau, revealed to Tompkins that there was a worry that, after seeing the battle in Detroit, there weren’t enough troops in the US to quell a larger rebellion. “At one point, we even considered pulling troops out of Vietnam,” he told Tompkins.

Bonus army shanty town

There was some precedent for a military response to King’s plans. King explained that the campaign would be in many ways modeled on the Bonus Army of 1932, when mostly out-of-work veterans of the first World War, promised bonuses redeemable in 1945, occupied Washington during the depths of the Great Depression to plead for their bonuses ahead of maturity. The veterans and their families built a vast shanty town in Washington and vowed to stay until their bonus vouchers were redeemed. However, the tens of thousands of veterans were eventually attacked and evicted by infantry and tank crews led by General Douglas MacArthur and then-Major George S. Patton, quashing their demands.

Bonus army shanty burns after the military attacks

But while the Bonus Army episode saw US troops in conflict with veterans, there were only a few deaths and scant injuries. Detroit and Newark had seen open, armed rebellion. And now there was legitimate discussion of how the US military might be called upon to maintain domestic order — or, in the new framework of King, put down a colonial rebellion. Tompkins learned that “Army Intelligence intensified its surveillance of King and covertly dispatched Green Beret teams to make street maps, identify landing zones for riot troops and scout sniper sites in 39 potential racially explosive cities, including Memphis.” The December meeting at the Pentagon “broke up in frustration,” one of its participants told Tompkins. “Looking back, I remember nobody had any answers,” he said. “We had all these West Point geniuses who could lead divisions. But when it came to stopping Dr. King, they didn’t have a clue.”

Read part 4.

Writer — bylines at Salon, Alternet, McSweeney’s, Flagpole Magazine