Who Killed Martin Luther King Jr.?

Revolutionary Worker #958, May 24, 1998

On April 24, 1998, 30 years after the killing of Dr. King, the accused assassin James Earl Ray died in a prison hospital in Nashville. The official story is that Ray was a loner who shot King in Memphis on April 4, 1968 and escaped out of the country. And after Ray's death the national media insisted, once again, that there is "no evidence" of any high-level conspiracy. In fact, there are many reasons to believe that Dr. King was killed by an organized conspiracy and that powerful forces within the ruling class were involved.

James Earl Ray was a small-time, white racist, stickup man. In April 1968 he had been on the run for a year, after escaping from a Missouri penitentiary. Yet the authorities claim that Ray stalked King methodically from one city to another and arranged to have plastic surgery in Los Angeles. They expect people to believe that Ray simply shot King at the Lorraine Motel, and then climbed in his distinctive white Mustang and drove out of Memphis--even though King was under close federal surveillance. Ray traveled from Memphis to Atlanta, to Canada, to England, to Portugal, back to England and then was arrested on June 8 on his way to the white racist African state of Rhodesia--traveling with two false Canadian passports, registered under different names. And yet people are told this was done without accomplices, financial help or a larger organization.

Facts from Memphis

Gerald Posner recently wrote a book, Killing the Dream, intended to debunk "conspiracy theories" around King's death. However, this book is useful because of what it can't deny: According to Posner 12 or 14 government agents were packed into a firehouse on the day King was shot at the Lorraine Motel--less than 150 feet away from both King and the assassin. FBI agents and military intelligence agents were watching every move of King's group, and were assisted by Black Memphis cops who could identify figures of the local Black community. Two Black firemen were transferred from that firehouse--so they could not alert King about these secret government activities.

When the assassination happened, the Memphis police did not set up roadblocks on the avenues leading out of town (as they ordinarily do in such cases). They did not even issue an "all-points bulletin" for surrounding areas until long after the assassin escaped.

Posner also reports that the first person to reach Dr. King after the shooting was an undercover Memphis police officer, Marrell McCollough. This is similar to the way an undercover New York cop was the first person to reach Malcolm X after he was assassinated. Posner reports that McCollough subsequently went to work for the CIA.

Within minutes of the assassination, someone reported over a CB radio that a white Mustang was driving through north Memphis shooting at people. Meanwhile Ray drove out of town to the south. Police claim that this CB call was a teenage prank. But many people believe it was an accomplice helping Ray escape.

Ray always denied he shot King and claimed he was hired for a gun-running operation by a man called Raoul. According to Ray, this Raoul promised to get him out of the country but then set him up as a fall guy. These claims were never explored in a public trial. Ray was pressured into pleading guilty. Judge Battle, who presided over that hearing, later said he too doubted that Ray acted alone.

The FBI and the Struggle
within the Ruling Class

"King himself was murdered, not to eliminate a real leader of the oppressed but as part of the same intense struggles within the ruling class that cut down those he was most close and most beholden to, the Kennedy brothers, John and Bobby. And now that King and the particular intra-ruling class struggles that he was caught up in have passed, the ruling class as a whole seeks to turn his death to their political advantage by using it to promote the myth that he must have been for the poor and oppressed, or else why did the mighty cut him down?"

Bob Avakian, On Saviors, Realism
and Working within the System

By 1963, the Kennedy White House had realized that the Civil Rights struggle of Black people was not going to just fade away. They decided to promote "moderate" forces within the movement to help contain the people. King was important in their plans--he had emerged as a leader of mass struggle, and yet was clearly rooted in the more middle class sections of the Black community.

King's approach was to target the Jim Crow policies of local Southern power structures, while seeking to ally with forces within the larger ruling class. He hoped that the federal government would "protect" the Civil Rights movement in the South, and he criticized the FBI for working closely with the local white racist police. As part of this approach, he called on the masses of people to demand entrance into the U.S. system (rather than questioning it or overthrowing it). King opposed the growing tendency of Black people to identify with anti-imperialist forces around the world, like the rising struggle of Palestinian people against the U.S. ally Israel. These politics convinced President John Kennedy that King would be useful for containing the struggle of Black people. Kennedy invited King to the White House and personally asked him to help keep radical forces out of the movement.

At the same time, the Kennedy White House unleashed the FBI to spy on King--as well as more radical forces within the movement. Over the next years, the FBI expanded its COINTELPRO operation into a sweeping campaign to destroy, divide, neutralize and isolate political forces that they considered a threat to the system.

Attorney General Bobby Kennedy personally approved FBI wiretaps to make sure that King stuck to strategies and associations that suited ruling class interests. The FBI gathered tapes of King's sexual activities--a tactic they had refined for controlling people through blackmail and destroying them through public scandal.

In the following years, the struggle of people all over the world rose to a high tide, and inside the ruling class there was intensifying conflict over how to deal with it (as well as over other issues). Powerful forces in the ruling class believed that even nonviolent figures like King encouraged the struggle of the masses. And they believed that it was dangerous to promote and work through such "responsible" forces within the movement. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover was clearly part of that ruing class camp. In Hoover's view, anyone legitimizing protests and demanding change was a danger.

In November 1963, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and Lyndon Johnson rose to power. This shows the intensity of the conflicts inside the ruling class. Within months, Hoover and the FBI were attempting to use their secret tapes to destroy Martin Luther King. They leaked rumors about King's sexual activity to the media and rival forces within the Civil Rights Movement. In one famous COINTELPRO operation, FBI agents sent King a tape with an anonymous letter suggesting that he commit suicide.

By 1967 the struggle of Black people and students was continuing to radicalize. King's philosophy lost influence as radical new leaders emerged. In the "long hot summer" of 1967 tremendous rebellions shook inner cities across the U.S., and Johnson assigned military intelligence agencies to assist the FBI in domestic surveillance of the emerging Black liberation struggle and anti-war resistance.

Sections of the U.S. ruling class were still determined to co-opt and channel the increasingly radical struggle. Bobby Kennedy announced he would run for President. Dr. King, too, broke with President Johnson and, like Bobby Kennedy, came out against Johnson's approach in Vietnam. With Bobby Kennedy's endorsement, Dr. King proposed a poor people's encampment in Washington, DC for the summer of 1968--so that the explosive struggle of the people could be channeled into controllable forms by creating a prominent forum in the Capitol and in the '68 election campaign. Other forces in the ruling class were extremely hostile to these approaches--believing that the Black masses of Washington, DC might prove impossible to control.

In this period, Hoover and the FBI included Dr. King in their discussion of figures to "neutralize." On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. The following month, his ruling class ally Robert Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California presidential primary.

Who in the ruling class approved King's assassination? Did they have some right-wing racist circle carry out the hit, using Ray as the triggerman? Did military or FBI assassins pull the trigger, and set up Ray to take the blame?

The full answers may lie buried in the archives of the FBI until the day when the people drag them into daylight. But clearly, powerful forces--including the head of the FBI--believed that King should be "neutralized." Posner writes that the FBI knew about dozens of plots to assassinate King, but they did not warn King of such plots. And there is no record that they ever moved to break up such operations. The FBI had recruited many operatives and informants within the Klan and white racist circles, and repeatedly used these networks to attack the Civil Rights Movement. It is quite possible that the FBI unleashed or "allowed" such forces to kill King.

There is evidence that James Earl Ray may have had ties to a wealthy racist lawyer in Missouri, John Sutherland, who in 1968 was offering $50,000 to anyone willing to assassinate Dr. King. Ray was in the Missouri penitentiary at that time, and then escaped. After the King assassination, when Ray was captured in England, his brother Jerry Ray reportedly told police, "If I was in his position, and had 18 years to serve and someone offered me a lot of money to kill someone I didn't like anyhow and get me out of the country, I'd do it."

There are many reasons to believe that there were organized forces behind the killing of Dr. King, that the FBI or other government forces had a hand in it, and that the system has worked for 30 years to cover this up.

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