Who Killed Martin Luther King? An American Murder Mystery
“The white Mustang is shooting at the blue Pontiac following him,” barked the Memphis police dispatcher on the evening of April 4, 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., barely clung to life in the St. Joseph’s emergency room after the sniper’s shot, but the suspect, believed to be leaving town in a white Mustang, had been intercepted by civilians who were now in harrowing pursuit. Squad cars were scrambled to join the high-speed chase underway. “On the way to Raleigh, north on Jackson. North on Jackson toward Raleigh, a blue Pontiac occupied by three white males,” reported the dispatcher, who, in a wild stroke of luck, was receiving news of the chase in real-time from the Pontiac itself, the driver relaying to police the precise position and path of the speeding Mustang over the squawk and static of citizens band radio.
The chase, now with police en route, reached maddening speeds as the Mustang led the Pontiac out toward the city limits. Seventy-five miles an hour became 95 through a red light at Stage Road, and the two muscle cars soon raced “north on Jackson through Raleigh, doing 110 miles an hour,” according to the frantic transmission. “I am being shot at, I am being shot at,” the voice “hollered,” as the chase maintained its 110-mph pace, now 15 miles north of downtown Memphis, patrol cars in hot pursuit.
None of which was actually happening. There was no chase. The blue Pontiac was a phantom, as was the white Mustang. The only thing that was real was the dark farce of squad cars racing away from town, toward nothing.
They’d been had. The police’s suspect, understood to be a John Willard, had indeed been driving a white Mustang, but he had slipped the police cordon around the Lorraine Motel and was leaving Memphis on the city’s south side, on the opposite end of a diameter drawn by the phantom Mustang and Pontiac heading north. Memphis police eventually discovered they’d been duped by the “mystery broadcaster,” but not before devoting cars, personnel and attention to the city’s north side.
That “mystery broadcaster,” according to police records, was never found, and the episode remains one of the enduring riddles for those who believe that Dr. King was the target of a conspiracy, usually understood to originate out of the darkest recesses of the deep state, with Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover at the center. It was at the FBI office in Atlanta on the night of April 4, 1968, that a second clue pointing toward conspiracy can be found. Agent Arthur Murtagh, part of the Bureau’s “Black Probe” effort in Atlanta to surveil and track King, was leaving the FBI building right around the time that the “mystery broadcaster” was diverting the police’s attention in Memphis. Upon hearing the news of King’s death on the radio, one of his fellow agents excitedly clapped his fist into his palm and said, “By God, we finally got him!” Murtagh, aware of what he called the FBI’s institutional “vendetta” against King, was struck by the pronoun: “It was the ‘we’ that stuck in my mind. He didn’t say ‘they,’ he said ‘we.’”
Which pronoun do we use? The State uses its singular pronoun: he. He, one man, James Earl Ray, was the killer, alone and unassisted. With the emergence of evidence of some manner of conspiracy during congressional investigation, a 1976 Capitol Hill subcommittee expanded the he to a possible they: Ray plus others. Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s late widow, is with FBI agent Murtagh: His we becomes they. They did it, forces inside the government, with the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover at the center. Each of the King children, the whole family, agreed with Coretta, as does seemingly everyone close to King. Former UN Ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young agrees with Coretta; as did Ralph Abernathy, who assumed leadership at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) after King’s death; as did Hosea Williams, King’s close aide; as does Walter Fauntroy, who was Chairman of the House Select Subcommittee to investigate King’s assassination 1976; as did James Bevel, one of King’s closest advisors, who even attempted to join James Earl Ray’s defense team in 1969, already convinced that something was amiss.
This view has only grown in the years since King’s death, especially as more and more has become known about the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO (COunter-INTELligence PROgram), the vast FBI effort to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, or otherwise neutralize” the black civil rights movement and its leaders. King began being tracked by the Bureau as early as 1957, but after the “I Have a Dream” speech and March on Washington in 1963, the 34-year-old King became a central target of COINTELPRO. An 11-page memo circulated after the March on Washington warned, “We must mark [King] now, if we have not before, as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation…” FBI Director Hoover is now known to have been preoccupied with King, whom he feared might become a black “messiah” to lead the black liberation movement.
As more FBI documents have been leaked or declassified, revealing the degree to which King was tracked, surveilled and hunted by Hoover’s FBI, the more the FBI’s story of King’s death has come under suspicion. It was, after all, the FBI who directed the investigation and controlled the evidence. That the FBI wanted King dead is now known, too. Hoover was intentionally lax in responding to reports of threats on King’s life, keeping the information from King and withholding protection in order to passively effect his death. The infamous “suicide letter” was another attempt at passive assassination, urging King to kill himself under the threat of blackmail. The 1964 letter, opened by Coretta, was penned by one of Hoover’s top men in Washington. It came from the top of the FBI, and Coretta, Martin and those in the inner circle all knew it.
After decades of accumulating evidence of the FBI’s (and the broader government’s) malevolence toward King and revelations of what looked to be exculpatory evidence absolving James Earl Ray, Coretta and the King children brought a civil case in 1999 to try to find the truth. Dexter King, the youngest son of Martin and Coretta, even met with the ailing Ray in prison, announcing afterward that he found the convicted killer of his father innocent. “In a strange sort of way, we’re both victims,” he said. Former Atlanta mayor and UN Ambassador Andrew Young joined with the King family to assert Ray’s innocence.
The month-long 1999 case, in Memphis, brought some 70 witnesses to the stand, including a number of Memphis police and detectives on the scene in 1968. A Memphis man, Lloyd Jowers, stepped forward to confess his involvement in a conspiracy to kill King. In 1968, he had operated a restaurant and bar directly below the boarding house window where the FBI’s culprit, James Earl Ray, was said to have fired from, and the dying Jowers was ready to testify about the conspirators’ use of his restaurant in the assassination. The restaurant’s back door opened onto the sloped thicket where Solomon Jones, King’s driver in Memphis, testified that he saw a hooded figure just after the shot was fired. Jowers testified that he was paid to receive the rifle at his back door and stow it away so that the gunman could take flight without the weapon. The rifle would stay hidden in the restaurant until the heat died down. New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell, who was staying in the Lorraine, testified that he, like Jones, saw a man “in a crouched, stooping position” in the dense overgrowth behind Jowers’ restaurant just after the shot was fired. Caldwell told the BBC in 1989, “From the day of the assassination until this day, no police, no FBI agent has ever come to me and said, “What did you see?’”
The testimonies pointed to something sinister, what Coretta and the rest of King’s inner circle had suspected, that James Earl Ray was only a patsy, a hapless criminal on whom the murder was to be pinned. It took the jury less than an hour to reach their verdict: Jowers and “others, including governmental agencies, were parties to this conspiracy.” King’s widow released a statement after the verdict: “There is abundant evidence of a major high level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr.”
This version of events is the one most likely heard by young Americans. One of the most popular rappers of the moment, Atlanta’s 21 Savage, asserts the government’s guilt in King’s death on his latest single, “Nothin New.” Fellow Atlanta rap superstar T.I. is more explicit: It was J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Another famous Atlanta rapper, Killer Mike, suggested as much in a conversation with then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016. But it’s not just rappers from King’s hometown; in hip hop, it’s effectively orthodoxy that there was a conspiracy behind King’s death. From Public Enemy to the Geto Boys to the Wu-Tang Clan to Rage Against the Machine, from ’80s acts to chart-toppers of today, the understanding is the same. It wasn’t the lone assassin who killed King, they say; it was the government.
Black radicalism can be punishable by death, implies rapper Kendrick Lamar: “Tell the government come shoot me, nigga / ’Cause I’m going out with a fist raised.” Lamar and many other rappers often cite Fred Hampton, the young Black Panther targeted and killed in his sleep by the FBI and Chicago police. (Jay-Z points out that he was born on the day the Panther hero was assassinated.) Figures like King and Malcolm X are often considered to have suffered the same fate as Hampton and other Panthers now known to have been killed by state forces. Killer Mike raps, “I’ve been labeled outlaw, renegade, villain / So was Martin King, so the system had to kill him.” To challenge the system — white racial, institutional and economic power — is to invite danger. Even the outspoken Cardi B was seen to mute herself in 2016 after yelling “fuck the government” during a concert in Flint, Michigan. “I’m gonna stop talking about the government,” she told New York radio host Charlamagne. “I keep seeing people being like, ‘You better be quiet before they assassinate your ass,’ and I was like, ‘You right.’”
Among black Americans, suspicion of the State’s story of the lone gunman killing King far exceeds the general population’s doubt about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In the latest available polling, a 2008 CNN/Essence poll, 88% of black respondents rejected the State’s account of a lone gunman and suspected conspiracy. A mere 9% affirmed the State’s story. Revealing their new poll numbers to coincide with release of documents related to the Kennedy assassination, the website FiveThirtyEight asserted that “[p]erhaps no major event in modern U.S. history has spawned more widespread doubt than the assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” citing the 61% of respondents believing there to have been more than lone gunman involved in Kennedy’s death. The numbers are indeed high but nowhere the near near unanimity found in black Americans asked about King’s assassination.
This is despite Ray having pled guilty. In a bizarre courtroom episode, Ray entered a guilty plea which was immediately fraught with doubt. Ray maintained his innocence before the courtroom appearance and afterward, but for a brief moment in March 1969, Ray had officially confessed guilt. But it was a strange plea, with Ray suddenly interrupting the proceedings, shocking his lawyer and the judge. With the guilty plea practically still ringing in the air, Ray immediately began amending it. J. Edgar Hoover himself was named in the sudden outburst by Ray. Ray wanted to assert that he didn’t agree with Hoover’s recent public denial of a conspiracy. But the plea had been entered and registered: Ray was considered guilty by the justice system. Ray was taken from the courtroom and almost immediately began a process, however futile, of formally retracting his plea and seeking a new trial. The New York Times’ editorial the next morning addressed the trial, with its strange ending. “The aborted trial of James Earl Ray for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a shocking breach of faith with the American people,” the editors wrote. “Nothing but outrage and suspicion can follow the handling of this long-delayed and instantly snuffed-out trial…[T]he question still cries for an answer: Was there a conspiracy to kill Dr. King and who was in it?” For many, that question is answered in the affirmative: Yes, there was a conspiracy, and it resided in the government.
It’s difficult to overstate how much of a threat King represented to the political, economic, cultural and racial order in April 1968. At the time of his death, King was planning nothing less than a socialist revolution, set to begin in late April as the culmination of a truly radical turn in King’s last year of life. While still committed to nonviolence, King now envisioned a “traumatic” disturbance in the nation’s capital to demand the “total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty,” which would have upended American capitalism and re-sorted power in a way never attempted before or since. And the means were as radical as the demand. More than 40 years before Occupy Wall Street, King planned to descend upon Washington with a multiracial occupation of poor and working-class Americans, not leaving until their demands for a “radical redistribution” of wealth and power was met. Both the FBI and the Pentagon fretted about what King promised to bring to Washington, with Hoover disobeying President Johnson’s orders and secretly mobilizing his men to recommence tracking King. Army Intelligence, too, held at least one high-level meeting to prepare for what King’s revolutionary spring might engender. Both dispatched agents to Memphis.
Read Part 2.