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The (Character) Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

by John McMillian on Nov 19, 1999

The family of Martin Luther King, Jr., much maligned of late for its aggressive copyright control of Dr. King’s works, has raised eyebrows further with its wrongful death suit against Lloyd Jowers, an otherwise obscure Memphis cafe owner who once boasted that he played a role in a shadowy plot to murder King. Jury selection began November 15.

The case hardly comes as a surprise. In recent years, the King family has embraced a wide array of theories to suggest that his “real killers” have never been found. Indeed, the family has at various times implicated the CIA, the FBI, U.S. Army intelligence, and even President Lyndon B. Johnson in an elaborate conspiracy to murder Dr. King.

To anyone familiar with the massive wealth of evidence against King’s convicted assassin, James Earl Ray, these theories are hard to stomach. But instead of simply condemning the King family for being dupes, we could ask how we reached this state of affairs to begin with? How has a fairly straightforward case like the King assassination become complicated with such stale, predictable theories that it was secretly orchestrated by the government?

One reason may be that while King was alive, federal officials who were aligned against him got away with everything just short of murder. Although King has become an officially sanctioned hero whose memory we celebrate annually, it wasn’t so long ago that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover mounted an intense campaign of surveillance and harassment in a pitched effort to destroy his career. The FBI tapped King’s phones, bugged his rooms, invaded his personal life, and tried to undermine his credibility at every turn.

Following King’s famous speech at the March on Washington in 1963, for instance, FBI Assistant Director Louis Sullivan charged (in a curious pair of adjectives) that King was “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” Hoover’s hatred for King bordered on the pathological, and when the civil rights leader received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Hoover labeled King “the most notorious liar in the country.” Bureau agents told influential supporters and donors to the civil rights movement that King was a communist dupe and a moral degenerate, and even tried to block a meeting between King and the Pope.

Even more insidiously, the FBI played twisted mental games with King — games that are etched forever in the King family’s memory. At one point, when King was known to be in an exhausted, precarious state of mind, an FBI operative mailed him an anonymous package that contained a cryptic note and an audiotape of “highlights” from his extramarital affairs. It was discovered by King’s wife and was understood by King and his inner circle as a thinly veiled suggestion that he commit suicide.

“There is only one way out for you,” the note read. “You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” King was so shaken by the FBI’s harassment that he took refuge at a private residence. In response, the FBI summoned the local fire department to send fire trucks rushing to his address.

FBI agents stepped up their attempts to smear King in 1967, when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. Later that year, the Bureau launched COINTELPRO, an elaborate counter-intelligence program meant to destroy so-called “black nationalist hate groups,” including King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The FBI further stated that its goal was to prevent the rise of a black “Messiah” who might “unify and electrify” the growing black liberation movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., one report warned, “could be a real contender for this position.”

Although none of this proves a government-wide conspiracy to actually kill King, his family knows better than anyone that the FBI actively promoted a climate in which King’s assassination might not be greeted as unwelcome. Indeed, they lived with this reality for many years.

When we keep all of this in mind, the family’s misguided quest to bring Dr. King’s “real killers” to justice becomes, if not a desirable event, at least understandable. At great sacrifice to himself and to all who loved him, King gave over his most vital years to the crusade against racism, militarism and poverty. As if it were not already enough that for all this he was gunned down by a white racist, while he was alive he and his family suffered needlessly from slimy government subterfuge.

Whereas James Earl Ray was captured and justly punished for being King’s assassin, the FBI has never been made accountable for a much more lengthy, expensive, and organized campaign to destroy him. It should be. Perhaps then the King family would not have to keep struggling to win the justice it feels it has been denied.

John McMillian is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University, and a writer for the History News Service. He has interned at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project at Stanford University.