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The Weaponization of the FBI
How the Feds destroyed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Sam Pollard's 2021 documentary, “MLK/FBI,” was a great inquiry into how the FBI set out to destroy Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and ‘60s. In memos released in 2019, the FBI laid out a scenario that he had dozens of girlfriends, attended orgies and even approved of a rape in a hotel room.
Memos – summaries – were released. The original audiotapes and transcripts, plus thousands of other files, have been sealed by court order until 2027.
Are we to trust documents created by a government agency admittedly bent on destroying the man? If the FBI was conducting massive surveillance on King everywhere he traveled, why couldn't they stop his murder in Memphis? Were Hoover's men incompetent or complicit?
Is it time – again – for America to investigate the weaponization of the FBI, CIA and other federal agencies?
The FBI’s Secret War
“MLK/FBI” traces the FBI’s obsession with Martin Luther King’s ties to communism back to a secret and illegal FBI operation uncovered during the so-called Church Committee hearings of 1975. COINTELPRO – Counter Intelligence Program – it was discovered, had been launched in 1956 to surveil, infiltrate, discredit and disrupt American political organizations deemed by J. Edgar Hoover to be subversive.
The Church Committee documented the following tactics used by the FBI to undermine target organizations and their leaders:
Anonymously attack the political beliefs of targets in order to induce their employers to fire them
Anonymously mail letters to the spouses of intelligence targets for the purpose of destroying their marriages
Obtain tax returns of a target and provoke IRS investigations
Falsely and anonymously label targets as government informants, exposing the falsely labeled member to expulsion or physical attack
Use "misinformation" to disrupt demonstrations, broadcast fake orders on citizens band radio frequencies
There was evidence that the FBI even had a hand in assassinations. One rising African-American target, Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party, was killed by Chicago police during an early morning raid of his apartment less than two years after King’s assassination.
The Church Committee concluded:
The Senate hearings led to a House investigation. For two years, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) explored possible government complicity with the killings of both King and President John F. Kennedy. The committee posed the question: Given the extensive FBI effort against Dr. King, was the agency willing or able to conduct a “thorough and far-reaching criminal investigation of the assassination?”
In 1979, little more than a decade after King’s assassination, the HSCA concluded that while, at times, the FBI investigation exemplified “the best of police work,” the Bureau had dropped the ball on exploring a possible conspiracy. Hoover had determined, once James Earl Ray was arrested for the murder, that no further leads really mattered.
“On the basis of the circumstantial evidence available,” the HSCA report states, “there is a likelihood that James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a result of a conspiracy.”
The Search for Sources
Journalistic enterprise is primarily the search for sources – credible, (preferably) first-hand sources that converge on a specific narrative. Government investigations often have resources beyond the reach of the average reporter, including subpoena power, placing witnesses under oath and access to documentation.
But neutrality is a crucial factor in good journalism, and it can be argued that political and bureaucratic organizations are rarely neutral. Less than two weeks after Ray was arrested in London, Hoover told Attorney General Ramsey Clark “in Ray's case, we have not found a single angle that would indicate a conspiracy … he acted entirely alone." Can we expect neutrality in the ongoing investigation?
No one disputes that King was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. on April 4, 1968. But no one saw who did it. Ray never confessed to the killing - he pleaded guilty in a plea bargain. Almost immediately, he tried to recant his plea and submit the case for trial. Ray would spend the rest of his life trying to get that trial.
James Earl Ray is a significant first-hand source. He knows whether or not he pulled the trigger. The story he stuck to for 30 years was that a man he knew only as Raoul had guided him for more than seven months, recruited him to smuggle diamonds and guns, instructed him to purchase a hunting rifle, and later book a room in a Memphis rooming house.
According to his 1992 memoirs, Who Killed Martin Luther King, the two met in Ray’s rented room around 5 p.m. on April 4. Ray claims that Raoul needed to meet some prospective clients – gun-buyers – alone, and suggested Ray go take in a movie. Ray went off to get his leaky tire fixed instead.
“As I approached the area,” he writes regarding his return to the rooming house, “I noticed uniformed officers. A squad car was parked near the intersection. What in the hell could have brought on a roadblock, I wondered. Had the law latched onto Raoul?”
Raoul would be another crucial first-hand source, either to confirm or deny Ray’s story. But he has never come forward publically and no one has ever been able to identify him. In fact, the FBI and the HSCA both rejected Raoul as Ray’s desperate attempt to create an alibi and shift responsibility.
The four red circles from top to bottom: Martin Luther King’s position on the balcony, Fire Station No. 2 surveillance post, rooming house bathroom window, storefront where the gun was found.
On a similar note, no one has ever identified anyone who claims to have witnessed Ray pulling the trigger. Just prior to the shooting, King had walked out of his second-floor motel room and stood on the balcony, bantering with a group of his associates who waited in the parking lot below to go to dinner.
The dinner host – Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles – was the only other person on the balcony. He was walking away from King towards the stairs when he heard what he thought was a car back-firing. Seeing others duck and run for cover, Kyles realized a shot had been fired. He looked behind him to see King down in a pool of blood.
Under oath in 1999, Kyles was asked if he looked back in the direction of the rooming house across the street or the bush area at the base of the building – did he see any movement of anyone in that vicinity?
“I did not,” he said. “I would have had a clear view. I'm sure I looked in that direction, but I guess I was in such shock I can't say.”
King’s entourage in the parking lot (including Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young) have said the shot seemed to originate from the rooming house or the bushes above the retaining wall across Mulberry Street.
New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell, assigned to cover King and the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike, heard a “loud boom” coming through the open door of his motel room on the first floor of the Lorraine. He ran to the doorway, expecting to see smoke or fire.
“But there was none of that. Nothing,” Caldwell wrote in 2018. “Instead, directly in front of me, beyond the parking lot and atop an embankment across the street, I glimpsed a figure half crouched in the thicket of the high brush. His attention was trained on something at the motel. He was a white man. What kept him focused on the Lorraine, I did not know — but I kept my eyes on him, believing he held some clue as to what had happened. He appeared to be wearing something like coveralls. And he was twisting, turning — but all the while, focused on the motel.”
Law enforcement arrived at the Lorraine almost immediately. In fact, a team was monitoring King’s movements with binoculars from Fire Station No. 2, half a block down from the rooming house, about 150 feet from the motel. Memphis police officers, FBI agents and even several military intelligence officers were in and out of the fire station whenever King was in town, according to Gerald Posner’s Killing the Dream.
Ironically, one of the first to reach the fallen King was Marrell “Mac” McCollough, an undercover Memphis police officer assigned to spy on a local black-activist group. He can be seen in Joseph Louw’s iconic balcony photo – McCollough is the one man kneeling and holding a towel to King’s wound.
McCollough testified under oath to the HSCA that he heard the “explosion” while standing in the parking lot, but did not see anyone on the far side of Mulberry Street.
“The fact that he was an undercover agent who was close to the King entourage has since raised much consternation,” Posner writes. “McCollough subsequently went to work for the CIA … despite repeated requests through the CIA’s Office of Information and Privacy, [he] refuses to be interviewed.”
Memphis firefighter George Leonneke just happened to peek through a peephole cut in the newspapers covering the windows at Fire Station No. 2 at 6:01 p.m. Hearing the crack and seeing King fall, he ran through the station where law enforcement personnel were taking a coffee break.
“Every one of the police – I told them all – they all run out the back door or the side door to the Lorraine,” Leonneke told Phillip Melanson, the Dartmouth professor who penned The MURKIN Conspiracy: An Inquiry into the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leonneke saw no one on Main Street, where James Earl Ray would have been fleeing.
Police did find a bundle in a doorway on Main Street between the fire station and the rooming house. It comprised a rifle (still in the box) and binoculars wrapped in a green cloth. Fingerprints on the rifle eventually matched Ray’s, although ballistic experts could not determine whether or not the gun was actually the murder weapon.
The FBI’s enmity towards King and law enforcement’s inability to thwart the assassination did not go unnoticed by King’s widow, children and close associates. King’s inner circle never believed the Ray-as-lone-nut theory.
Civil rights organizer James Bevel put it this way: "There is no way a ten-cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man."
The Conspiracy Trials
In 1993, having failed another attempt to get his day in court, James Earl Ray had the next-best thing: a mock trial on HBO. This early experiment in reality TV featured former U.S. Attorney Hickman Ewing as prosecutor, long-time Ray legal counsel William Pepper on defense, and Judge Marvin E. Frankel, who sat for 13 years in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Ray testified via satellite from a prison cell in Nashville.
It is very difficult to find any information on HBO’s “Guilt or Innocence: The Trial of James Earl Ray.” We know the jury found Ray not guilty, but there doesn’t seem to be a transcript of the mock trial on line and no DVD was ever released.
Eight months later, former Memphis police officer and businessman Loyd Jowers appeared on ABC’s “Prime Time Live” to claim that he was the one who hired King’s assassin – and it wasn’t James Earl Ray.
Jowers had been the owner of Jim’s Grill, the restaurant on the ground floor of Bessie Brewer’s rooming house where Ray claims he met Raoul on the afternoon of the assassination. Sitting in shadow, Jowers told “Prime Time Live” anchor Sam Donaldson that Frank Liberto, a Memphis produce dealer with reputed mob ties, pressured him into helping arrange the King hit. Jowers said that if prosecutors were willing to grant immunity, as many as five witnesses would come forward to explain the actual conspiracy.
Immunity was eventually denied. Assistant Attorney General John Campbell told Posner that Jowers was probably trying to profit from the story: “From investigating it, it looks real bogus. But if we get pressured into giving him immunity, it would be a disaster. Overnight, the value of Jowers’ story would skyrocket … we are not going to help someone, or a group of people, make a financial killing with a false story.”
Nevertheless, the second conspiracy trial came in 1999, after Coretta Scott King filed a wrongful death suit against Jowers (and “other unknown co-conspirators”) in civil court. Jowers declined to testify; his lawyer indicated Jowers would invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination if deposed or called to the stand.
Jowers had spent six years telling various versions of the conspiracy story– including naming Memphis police officer Lt. Earl Clark as the shooter – but under oath without immunity, denied involvement.
Once again, a jury found Ray a patsy and a government investigation (conducted by Attorney General Janet Reno in 2000) found him an assassin. The King family has continued to champion Ray’s innocence and the government’s duplicity.
Four years from now, all classified archives of King-assassination records are supposed to be released to the public. The iconic images of both King and the FBI will be put to another test.