To the Editor:
Every year at this time, it is all around us: “Rev. Martin Luther King equals civil rights” and “Civil rights equal black people.” Because of this limited view, we misunderstand what Rev. King stood for. And why he died.
The 1957 founding motto of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was “To save the soul of America.” And by 1967, he had undergone a sea change in his understanding of what that meant – that it involved not just wrongs to black people in the United States, but of economic inequality of all people, and the maiming and murdering and poisoning of distant innocent people in our testing of modern weapons of warfare.
On April 4, 1967, – a year to the day before his murder – he gave a powerful speech at Riverside Church in New York. It was a detailed and explicit call for an end to the immoral Vietnam War. To his former colleagues, who as a result disowned him as “no longer a civil rights leader,” he responded, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”
On April 4, 1968, against the advice of some advisors, he was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike, emblematic of the campaign he was a short time away from leading – a half-million-strong Poor People’s Campaign heading to Washington to camp in a tent city and press the government to address income inequality. We now know that the U.S. government was panicked at the thought of a situation they couldn’t control in the capital that might spread unrest across the country. The dangerous King had to go.
The rest of the story we think we know. But the commonly held view is false, as was revealed during a little-covered month-long civil trial held in Memphis in late 1999. You can read about it in “An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King,” a stunning book by William Pepper, the lawyer who gathered evidence over two decades and was hired by the King family to litigate the trial. It’s available from the Southwest Harbor library and from many other libraries via interlibrary loan, and summarized in some detail at www.dickatlee.com.
At the trial, the jurors heard from nearly 70 witnesses who were among – or had direct personal knowledge of – the large number of people involved in King’s execution. After less than an hour of deliberation, the jury found (and the judge agreed) that James Earl Ray, the accused lone gunman, was an unwitting patsy, uninvolved in the murder.
Who did the jury find to have been involved? Supported by a mountain of evidence, they concluded that King was executed by a conspiracy involving, among others, officials and members of the Memphis Police Department, the State of Tennessee, the mob, the FBI and Justice Department, and the U.S. Army.
The full story of what happened that day is complex and horrifying. And it explains why we are taught by textbooks and mass media that King was only about black people’s civil rights. There are too many skeletons in that closet.
The only media person attending the entire trial was a local anchorman who, although he was convinced by the evidence, was threatened and eventually fired. The only coverage consisted of attacks by people who weren’t present and heard none of the evidence.
King wasn’t only about black civil rights. He was about the soul of America. And by ignoring that, we may have gone a long way toward losing that soul.