40 Years Later, Conspiracy Theories Persist About Martin Luther King's Assassination
Despite Findings of Congressional Probe of Civil Rights Martyr's Death in Memphis in 1968, Some Still Insist That James Earl Ray Did Not Act Alone; House Committee's Records on Assassination to Remain Sealed for 20 More Years
Actor Samuel L. Jackson (center) paints the upper balcony of ...
Actor Samuel L. Jackson (center) paints the upper balcony of the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, in front of Room 306, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated 40 years ago Friday. Accompanying Jackson are Kevin Frazier (left) of TV's "Entertainment Tonight" and Niani Omotesa (right), a volunteer who works for the nearby Hampton Hotel. The motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum. (Photo: Robin Weiner/AP)
THURSDAY SPECIAL REPORT
By Bartholomew Sullivan
Memphis Commercial Appeal
WASHINGTON -- Thirty years after the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded its exhaustive review of the 1968 Memphis shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., its chairman, Louis Stokes, stands by its findings.
"No one to my knowledge has come forth with any factual evidence of any kind that would in any way controvert the findings of our committee," Stokes, now a retired lawyer in both Cleveland and Washington, said in an interview with The Commercial Appeal on the eve of the 40th anniversary of King's assassination on Friday.
"I don't know of one single piece of evidence that anyone has brought forth that has tainted our findings," said the Ohio Democrat.
But some have looked at the evidence and drawn different conclusions.
The committee found it "ironic" that the FBI's ongoing surveillance and harassment campaign against King helped prove that the bureau did not have foreknowledge of his 1968 assassination in Memphis.
It found that James Earl Ray did not harbor "deep-seated racial animosity" sufficient to motivate the killing, but that he might have been lured by a potential financial reward.
And it found evidence that others -- including a now-dead lawyer in St. Louis -- were offering a payoff to kill King, which proved there was a conspiracy, and that Ray, a Missouri prison escapee, might have been aware of it.
Why Was Memphis Cop Removed From King's Motel Just Before Assassin Struck?
But it also determined that Ray was the lone assassin and that neither the FBI nor the Memphis police were complicit in the killing. It made that finding despite concluding that indefensibly "substandard" Memphis police work may have aided Ray's escape.
Perhaps most notably, the committee found plausible a strange explanation for the removal of a black Memphis police detective from his post outside the Lorraine Motel just hours before the killing.
Some say the committee ignored evidence or drew the wrong conclusions.
John Judge, founder of the Coalition on Political Assassinations and one who believes, like some in King's family, that Ray did not pull the trigger, scoffs at the panel's work. "Look at what they call conclusions," said Judge. "They can't determine anything except that Ray did it."
Others, like Ray lawyer William F. Pepper, in his 2003 book, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King, suggest the committee overlooked evidence it collected that "frequently conflicts with conclusions of the [committee's] report itself."
House Committee's Investigation Was Troubled From the Start
The investigation got off to a rocky start and its first two chairmen resigned before Stokes got to nod from then-House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (D-Massachusetts). He said there was "a lot of politicking to overcome the general feeling that the committee was going to be an embarrassment and the best thing to do was to shut it down."
Stokes knew King before the assassination. King had organized the Cleveland voter registration drive that led to Stokes' brother, Carl, becoming the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city in November 1967 (After leaving office in 1971, Carl Stokes moved to New York, where he became a popular local TV news anchorman. He died of cancer in 1996).
Stokes and King waited in his brother's campaign headquarters for results to come in that night. Despite that intimacy, Stokes said he was determined to approach the investigation without preconceived views.
Stokes said he spent eight hours at the Brushy Mountain prison with Ray before the hearings. He said that, by the time of his testimony, "I probably knew as much about James Earl Ray as he knew about himself. In interrogating him, I knew the type of cunning and evasive individual I'd be cross-examining."
"He was a very cunning criminal," Stokes recalled. "He was someone who was going to try by any means to keep from admitting that he had killed Dr. King."
The investigation looked into the possibility that the FBI and the Memphis Police Department were involved in the assassination, but concluded they were not.
King's Security Detail Was Withdrawn Night Before Shooting
It took testimony both in closed and open session on the issue of the removal of Ed Redditt, a black Memphis police detective, from an observation post next to the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, just two hours before the assassination. It also looked into the transfer of two black firemen from the observation firehouse.
King's plane had been met the day before by a four-man security detail led by Inspector Don H. Smith. The detail followed King throughout his first day in Memphis, but was withdrawn the night before the shooting because of King's party's perceived lack of cooperation, according to the committee report.
Redditt maintained surveillance of the motel on April 3 and 4 until he was called back to headquarters to meet with then-Police Chief James McDonald, Fire Chief Frank C. Holloman and an unidentified Secret Service official. They placed him under police protection (Melvin Burgess, later the city's police director, was part of the detail) because of reports that Redditt was the target of death threats.
Representative Harold Ford Sr. (D-Tennessee), who was a member of the select committee and who agreed -- then declined -- to be interviewed for this story, reportedly asked Redditt in closed-door testimony whether he was planning to seek elective office.
Detective Has Always Questioned Reason for His Removal
Redditt, now 77 and a track coach at the Fayette Academy in Somerville, has always been suspicious about his removal from the scene. In a recent interview, Redditt said the suggestion that he was unsympathetic to the striking sanitation workers was part of a strategy to discredit him.
And when he finally returned to work, he said: "Nobody said one earthly thing about a contract [killing]."
The committee report summarized its Redditt investigation with the conclusion that he'd been "removed because his superior perceived real danger to his safety." It added: "The committee found that Redditt's removal was not part of any plot to facilitate the assassination of Dr. King."
The post-assassination operation of the Memphis Police Department also came under review. The department was criticized for its "inexcusable" failure to have a contingency plan for trouble in or near the Lorraine Motel, for an "indefensible" failure to post an all-points bulletin for the suspected white Mustang get-away car and for failure to set up road-blocks on major arteries leading out of Memphis.
"Nevertheless, the committee found no evidence that the substandard performance of the Memphis police in the aftermath of the assassination was part of a conspiracy to facilitate the assassination of Dr. King or the escape from Memphis of James Earl Ray," the final report said.
Assassination Records to Remain Sealed for 50 Years, Despite Clamor for Release
It may be another 20 years before anyone sees the 600,000 pages of the committee's sealed records on the King assassination.
Some, including academics, researchers and at least one member of that committee, think that's too long, especially for a committee that concluded in 1978 that King's death was the result of a conspiracy.
"King belongs to history, and the incident certainly does," said John Judge, co-founder of the Washington-based Coalition on Political Assassinations, which is meeting this weekend in Memphis.
"I don't think it was a good idea for them to have locked up the information in the first place for 50 years when you're coming out with as explosive a conclusion as they did: that there's a probably conspiracy...and then say nobody can look at the files for 50 years."
But the committee that looked at both the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and of King in 1978 simply complied with existing House rules, said its chairman, Louis Stokes, a retired congressman from Ohio.
"We had a lot of raw material that would have tended, if released publicly, to defame, embarrass and otherwise effect innocent people," Stokes said. "You cannot just release materials like that, so we followed the House rules and sealed those files under the 50-year rule."
Efforts to Make Records Public Fail
Over the years, efforts to make those sealed records available have been attempted through Freedom of Information Act requests and federal legislation. In 2005, then-Representative Cynthia McKinney (D-Georgia) picked up 64 co-sponsors, including many members of the Congressional Black Caucus, for a measure that would have opened the King files as well as sealed court files and grand jury records, too.
[Neither Representatives Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tennessee) nor Bennie G. Thompson (D-Mississippi) signed on as co-sponsors, records show.]
The McKinney legislation, with an identical Senate bill sponsored by John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), died in committee.
Shortly after he took office last year, Represenataive Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) had legislation drafted by his staff and circulated to Congressional Black Caucus members, the King family, and others, that would have unsealed the files. After a few months, he quietly withdrew plans to introduce it. There was no support.
Stokes said Cohen asked him about it. "He called me and I told him I did not know of any necessity for the release of those files," Stokes said.
Cohen said the public deserves to know, but he won't pursue it without more support.
Representative Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.), who chaired the subcommittee on the King assassination, has called for more than a decade for the investigative files to be unsealed, saying "there won't be any closure on any of this" until they are. Now retired from Congress and a Washington-based Baptist minister, he did not respond to repeated requests to elaborate.
Judge, the assassination researcher, said he's not indifferent to the King family's wishes or to privacy concerns of other Civil Rights leaders who might be unflatteringly mentioned in the archived material.
But he said provisions can be written into the law to protect those interests while releasing relevant historical records. "Are we going to wait for everyone to be dead before we find out anything about what happened?" he asked.