On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. An hour later he died. For nearly fifty years, the federal government has maintained that James Earl Ray was the gunman who assassinated King that day. But within Martin Luther King’s family, there remains a strong belief that Ray is innocent, and was set up to take the fall.
Almost immediately after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, his widow, Coretta Scott King, suspected that the FBI, which investigated the murder, was involved in it. “There is abundant evidence of a major high-level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Coretta King said at a press conference in 1999, according to The King Center. It was a theory she maintained until her death in 2006 that has so far never been proved. Yet given the way the bureau had treated her and her family, her suspicion of the FBI and its conclusions about her husband’s killer came from a very reasonable place, says John McMillian, a history professor at Georgia State University.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the FBI surveilled and harassed King, his family, and his associates. The bureau wiretapped his phone and monitored his movements, taking advantage of times when he seemed particularly upset or depressed. In one instance, the FBI sent him a tape that allegedly contained audio of him having an affair. With it came a letter threatening King with public exposure if he didn’t kill himself and claiming that the sender had evidence of other affairs.
“They might not have been involved in the murder,” McMillian observes of the FBI, “but I wish people knew the really shameful things that they did.” Indeed, a former agent from the FBI’s field office in Atlanta said the bureau’s tracking of King was second “only to the way they went after Jimmy Hoffa.” In 1975, a group of former FBI agents called on Congress to investigate this harassment. That investigation declassified scores of memos detailing the bureau’s abusive behavior but did not reveal any evidence that the FBI had formally plotted his death.
The King family’s belief in Ray’s innocence was partly influenced by the strange case of Loyd Jowers, who’d owned the restaurant below Ray’s rented room in Memphis. For the first twenty-five years after King’s death, Jowers did not claim any involvement in the murder. But after HBO conducted a televised mock trial about the assassination in 1993 in which Ray gave his first public testimony and was found not guilty, Jowers declared that he’d been part of a conspiracy to kill King, and that Ray had been set up to take to fall. The other people involved in this conspiracy, Jowers said, included Memphis police officers, a Mafia member, and the infamous Raoul.
These claims led King’s estate to sue Jowers in 1999 for a symbolic $100 in a wrongful death civil action. During the four-week trial in Memphis, a 12-person jury heard testimony from over 70 witnesses; but not Jowers, who didn’t testify because there were no criminal charges at stake. The jury awarded the money to the estate, deciding that King’s assassination had likely been the result of a conspiracy that involved Jowers, not Ray. The day after the trial ended, Coretta King held a press conference in Atlanta to praise the decision. “I wholeheartedly applaud the verdict of the jury and I feel that justice has been well served in their deliberations,” she said. “The jury was clearly convinced by the extensive evidence that was presented during the trial that, in addition to Mr. Jowers, the conspiracy of the Mafia, local, state and federal government agencies, were deeply involved in the assassination of my husband.”
An equally famous government dissenter, Malcolm X, is back in the news after his family recently revealed a letter implicating the FBI and the NYPD in his assassination. The three daughters of Malcolm X joined civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump recently to reveal what they say is evidence that proves the NYPD and the FBI conspired to have him assassinated. The civil rights activist and prominent figure in the Nation of Islam was killed at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan in February 1965. The family members and Crump said the allegations were in a deathbed letter by a former police officer, Raymond Wood.
In the January 25, 2011, letter, Wood, who was on duty the day of Malcolm X's death, said he "participated in actions that in hindsight were deplorable and detrimental to the advancement of my own black people. Under the direction of my handlers, I was told to encourage leaders and members of the civil rights groups to commit felonious acts," Wood said in the letter.
Wood stated he was coerced by his NYPD supervisors to entice members of Malcolm X's security detail into committing crimes that resulted in their arrest days before the deadly shooting. "It was my assignment to draw the two men into a felonious federal crime so that they could be arrested by the FBI and kept away from managing Malcolm X's door security on February 21, 1965," Wood wrote. "At that time, I was not aware that Malcolm X was the target."
Those arrests were a part of conspiracy between the NYPD and FBI to have Malcolm X killed, according to the letter. Malcolm X was a human rights activist and prominent black nationalist leader who served as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam, an African American Muslim group that embraced black separatism, during the 1950s and 1960s. A skilled orator, Malcolm X encouraged black people to fight against racism by any means necessary. The civil rights leader broke with the Nation of Islam shortly before his assassination at the ballroom, where he was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted in the shooting. The office of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance started reviewing the convictions last year.
These prominent dissenters’ assassinations reveal how the government was implicated in their murders. As the FBI revealed, both MLK and Malcolm X were seen as extremists who were an immediate threat to the government. But what kind of threat were they? They were seen as radical extremists because they demanded equality of African Americans. Imagine that—these two prominent leaders were demanding that the government uphold its own Constitution.