Like many great humanitarians who had the power to inspire and lead large mass movements against the establishment, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. King’s family believe the assassination was the result of a conspiracy involving the US government, and they’re probably right. The following article by Jim Douglas, originally published by Probe Magazine and currently hosted at David Ratcliffe’s Ratical.org site, explores revelations from a 1999 wrongful death lawsuit by the King family against Loyd Jowers and “other unknown co-conspirators”:
The Martin Luther King Conspiracy
Exposed in Memphis
by Jim Douglass
According to a Memphis jury’s verdict on December 8, 1999, in the wrongful death lawsuit of the King family versus Loyd Jowers “and other unknown co-conspirators,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a conspiracy that included agencies of his own government. Almost 32 years after King’s murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, a court extended the circle of responsibility for the assassination beyond the late scapegoat James Earl Ray to the United States government.
I can hardly believe the fact that, apart from the courtroom participants, only Memphis TV reporter Wendell Stacy and I attended from beginning to end this historic three-and-one-half week trial. Because of journalistic neglect scarcely anyone else in this land of ours even knows what went on in it. After critical testimony was given in the trial’s second week before an almost empty gallery, Barbara Reis, U.S. correspondent for the Lisbon daily Publico who was there several days, turned to me and said, “Everything in the U.S. is the trial of the century. O.J. Simpson’s trial was the trial of the century. Clinton’s trial was the trial of the century. But this is the trial of the century, and who’s here?”
What I experienced in that courtroom ranged from inspiration at the courage of the Kings, their lawyer-investigator William F. Pepper, and the witnesses, to amazement at the government’s carefully interwoven plot to kill Dr. King. The seriousness with which U.S. intelligence agencies planned the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. speaks eloquently of the threat Kingian nonviolence represented to the powers that be in the spring of 1968.
In the complaint filed by the King family, “King versus Jowers and Other Unknown Co-Conspirators,” the only named defendant, Loyd Jowers, was never their primary concern. As soon became evident in court, the real defendants were the anonymous co-conspirators who stood in the shadows behind Jowers, the former owner of a Memphis bar and grill. The Kings and Pepper were in effect charging U.S. intelligence agencies – particularly the FBI and Army intelligence – with organizing, subcontracting, and covering up the assassination. Such a charge guarantees almost insuperable obstacles to its being argued in a court within the United States. Judicially it is an unwelcome beast.
Many qualifiers have been attached to the verdict in the King case. It came not in criminal court but in civil court, where the standards of evidence are much lower than in criminal court. (For example, the plaintiffs used unsworn testimony made on audiotapes and videotapes.) Furthermore, the King family as plaintiffs and Jowers as defendant agreed ahead of time on much of the evidence.
But these observations are not entirely to the point. Because of the government’s “sovereign immunity,” it is not possible to put a U.S. intelligence agency in the dock of a U.S. criminal court. Such a step would require authorization by the federal government, which is not likely to indict itself. Thanks to the conjunction of a civil court, an independent judge with a sense of history, and a courageous family and lawyer, a spiritual breakthrough to an unspeakable truth occurred in Memphis. It allowed at least a few people (and hopefully many more through them) to see the forces behind King’s martyrdom and to feel the responsibility we all share for it through our government. In the end, twelve jurors, six black and six white, said to everyone willing to hear: guilty as charged.
We can also thank the unlikely figure of Loyd Jowers for providing a way into that truth.
Loyd Jowers: When the frail, 73-year-old Jowers became ill after three days in court, Judge Swearengen excused him. Jowers did not testify and said through his attorney, Lewis Garrison, that he would plead the Fifth Amendment if subpoenaed. His discretion was too late. In 1993 against the advice of Garrison, Jowers had gone public. Prompted by William Pepper’s progress as James Earl Ray’s attorney in uncovering Jowers’s role in the assassination, Jowers told his story to Sam Donaldson on Prime Time Live. He said he had been asked to help in the murder of King and was told there would be a decoy (Ray) in the plot. He was also told that the police “wouldn’t be there that night.”
In that interview, the transcript of which was read to the jury in the Memphis courtroom, Jowers said the man who asked him to help in the murder was a Mafia-connected produce dealer named Frank Liberto. Liberto, now deceased, had a courier deliver $100,000 for Jowers to hold at his restaurant, Jim’s Grill, the back door of which opened onto the dense bushes across from the Lorraine Motel. Jowers said he was visited the day before the murder by a man named Raul, who brought a rifle in a box.
As Mike Vinson reported in the March-April Probe, other witnesses testified to their knowledge of Liberto’s involvement in King’s slaying. Store-owner John McFerren said he arrived around 5:15 pm, April 4, 1968, for a produce pick-up at Frank Liberto’s warehouse in Memphis. (King would be shot at 6:0l pm.) When he approached the warehouse office, McFerren overheard Liberto on the phone inside saying, “Shoot the son-of-a-bitch on the balcony.“
Café-owner Lavada Addison, a friend of Liberto’s in the late 1970’s, testified that Liberto had told her he “had Martin Luther King killed.” Addison’s son, Nathan Whitlock, said when he learned of this conversation he asked Liberto point-blank if he had killed King.
The jury also heard a tape recording of a two-hour-long confession Jowers made at a fall 1998 meeting with Martin Luther King’s son Dexter and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young. On the tape Jowers says that meetings to plan the assassination occurred at Jim’s Grill. He said planners included undercover Memphis Police Department officer Marrell McCollough (who now works for the Central Intelligence Agency, and who is referenced in the trial transcript as Merrell McCullough), MPD Lieutentant Earl Clark (who died in 1987), a third police officer, and two men Jowers did not know but thought were federal agents.
Young, who witnessed the assassination, can be heard on the tape identifying McCollough as the man kneeling beside King’s body on the balcony in a famous photograph. According to witness Cobey Vernon Smith, McCollough had infiltrated a Memphis community organizing group, the Invaders, which was working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In his trial testimony Young said the MPD intelligence agent was “the guy who ran up [the balcony stairs] with us to see Martin.”
Jowers says on the tape that right after the shot was fired he received a smoking rifle at the rear door of Jim’s Grill from Clark. He broke the rifle down into two pieces and wrapped it in a tablecloth. Raul picked it up the next day. Jowers said he didn’t actually see who fired the shot that killed King, but thought it was Clark, the MPD’s best marksman.
Young testified that his impression from the 1998 meeting was that the aging, ailing Jowers “wanted to get right with God before he died, wanted to confess it and be free of it.” Jowers denied, however, that he knew the plot’s purpose was to kill King – a claim that seemed implausible to Dexter King and Young. Jowers has continued to fear jail, and he had directed Garrison to defend him on the grounds that he didn’t know the target of the plot was King. But his interview with Donaldson suggests he was not naïve on this point.
Loyd Jowers’s story opened the door to testimony that explored the systemic nature of the murder in seven other basic areas:
[The seven areas listed below each link to the given subject in Dr. William Pepper’s Closing Statement on 8 December 1999.]
The vision behind the trial
In his sprawling, brilliant work that underlies the trial, Orders to Kill (1995), William Pepper introduced readers to most of the 70 witnesses who took the stand in Memphis or were cited by deposition, tape, and other witnesses. To keep this article from reading like either an encyclopedia or a Dostoevsky novel, I have highlighted only a few. (Thanks to the King Center, the full trial transcript is available online at http://www.thekingcenter.com/tkc/trial.html.) [The transcript is no longer available at the King Center. Hypertext, PDF, and text-only representations are available at ratical.org/ratville/JFK/MLKACT/ –Editor] What Pepper’s work has accomplished in print and in court can be measured by the intensity of the media attacks on him, shades of Jim Garrison. But even Garrison did not gain the support of the Kennedy family (in his case) or achieve a guilty verdict. The Memphis trial has opened wide a door to our assassination politics. Anyone who walks through it is faced by an either/or: to declare naked either the empire or oneself.
The King family has chosen the former. The vision behind the trial is at least as much theirs as it is William Pepper’s, for ultimately it is the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. Coretta King explained to the jury her family’s purpose in pursuing the lawsuit against Jowers: “This is not about money. We’re concerned about the truth, having the truth come out in a court of law so that it can be documented for all.” “I’ve always felt that somehow the truth would be known, and I hoped that I would live to see it. It is important I think for the sake of healing so many people – my family, other people, the nation.”
Dexter King, the plaintiffs’ final witness, said the trial was about why his father had been killed: “From a holistic side, in terms of the people, in terms of the masses, yes, it has to be dealt with because it is not about who killed Martin Luther King Jr., my father. It is not necessarily about all of those details. It is about: Why was he killed? Because if you answer the why, you will understand the same things are still happening. Until we address that, we’re all in trouble. Because if it could happen to him, if it can happen to this family, it can happen to anybody.
In his closing argument, William Pepper identified economic power as the root reason for King’s assassination:
Pepper went a step beyond saying government agencies were responsible for the assassination. To whom in turn were those murderous agencies responsible? Not so much to government officials per se, Pepper asserted, as to the economic powerholders they represented who stood in the even deeper shadows behind the FBI, Army Intelligence, and their affiliates in covert action. By 1968, Pepper told the jury, “And today it is much worse in my view” – “the decision-making processes in the United States were the representatives, the footsoldiers of the very economic interests that were going to suffer as a result of these times of changes [being activated by King].”
To say that U.S. government agencies killed Martin Luther King on the verge of the Poor People’s Campaign is a way into the deeper truth that the economic powers that be (which dictate the policies of those agencies) killed him. In the Memphis prelude to the Washington campaign, King posed a threat to those powers of a non-violent revolutionary force. Just how determined they were to stop him before he reached Washington was revealed in the trial by the size and complexity of the plot to kill him.
Dexter King testified to the truth of his father’s death with transforming clarity:
When pressed by Pepper to name a specific amount of damages for the death of his father, Dexter King said, “One hundred dollars.”
The jury returned with a verdict after two and one-half hours. Judge James E. Swearengen of Shelby County Circuit Court, a gentle African-American man in his last few days before retirement, read the verdict aloud. The courtroom was now crowded with spectators, almost all black.
“In answer to the question, ‘Did Loyd Jowers participate in a conspiracy to do harm to Dr. Martin Luther King?’ your answer is ‘Yes.’” The man on my left leaned forward and whispered softly, “Thank you, Jesus.”
The judge continued: “Do you also find that others, including governmental agencies, were parties to this conspiracy as alleged by the defendant?’ Your answer to that one is also ‘Yes.’” An even more heartfelt whisper: “Thank you, Jesus!”
David Morphy, the only juror to grant an interview, said later: “We can look back on it and say that we did change history. But that’s not why we did it. It was because there was an overwhelming amount of evidence and just too many odd coincidences.
“Everything from the police department being pulled back, to the death threat on Redditt, to the two black firefighters being pulled off, to the military people going up on top of the fire station, even to them going back to that point and cutting down the trees. Who in their right mind would go and destroy a crime scene like that the morning after? It was just very, very odd.”
I drove the few blocks to the house on Mulberry Street, one block north of the Lorraine Motel (now the National Civil Rights Museum). When I rapped loudly on Olivia Catling’s security door, she was several minutes in coming. She said she’d had the flu. I told her the jury’s verdict, and she smiled. “So I can sleep now. For years I could still hear that shot. After 31 years, my mind is at ease. So I can sleep now, knowing that some kind of peace has been brought to the King family. And that’s the best part about it.”
Perhaps the lesson of the King assassination is that our government understands the power of nonviolence better than we do, or better than we want to. In the spring of 1968, when Martin King was marching (and Robert Kennedy was campaigning), King was determined that massive, nonviolent civil disobedience would end the domination of democracy by corporate and military power. The powers that be took Martin Luther King seriously. They dealt with him in Memphis.
Thirty-two years after Memphis, we know that the government that now honors Dr. King with a national holiday also killed him. As will once again become evident when the Justice Department releases the findings of its “limited re-investigation” into King’s death, the government (as a footsoldier of corporate power) is continuing its cover-up – just as it continues to do in the closely related murders of John and Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X.
The faithful in a nonviolent movement that hopes to change the distribution of wealth and power in the U.S.A. – as Dr. King’s vision, if made real, would have done in 1968 – should be willing to receive the same kind of reward that King did in Memphis. As each of our religious traditions has affirmed from the beginning, that recurring story of martyrdom (“witness”) is one of ultimate transformation and cosmic good news.
For more information about the King family’s lawsuit, read “An Act of State” by their lawyer, Dr. William F. Pepper. David Ratcliffe wrote an excellent detailed review of it posted here: http://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/MLKactOstate.html
William Pepper was recently on the Progressive Commentary Hour and Guns and Butter. You can listen to both interviews here: