Who Killed Martin Luther King?

by Philip Melanson

Odonian Press, 1993, paper


Murder in Memphis

In March 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. made a decision that may have cost him his life. He and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) denounced the war in Vietnam as "morally and politically unjust" and promised to do "everything in our power" to stop it.

In King stepped up his attack. At a speech at the Riverside church in New York City, he called the US "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and compared American practices in Vietnam to Nazi practices in WWII. He challenged all young men eligible for the draft to declare themselves conscientious objectors.

Before this, King had kept his civil rights work separate from the peace movement, partly on the advice of other black leaders who felt racial justice should be his first goal. But he increasingly saw that "the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism" couldn't be separated. The war was siphoning off money desperately needed for the poor and racially oppressed at home.

So King planned "civil disobedience on a massive scale" in order "to cripple the operations of an oppressive society." There would be sit-ins of the unemployed at factory entrances across the country, "a hungry people's sit-in' at the Department of Labor" and a Poor People's March on Washington, where thousands of demonstrators of all races would pitch their tents in the nation's capitol and stay until they'd been heard. There were even rumors (though King denied them) that he might run in the 1968 presidential election on an antiwar, third-party ticket with Dr. Benjamin Spock.

King's actions brought sharp criticism from all sides, black and white alike. Life magazine called the Riverside speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." It charged King with "introducing] matters that have nothing to do with the legitimate battle for equal rights here in America."

Even the more moderate National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) agreed: "To attempt to merge the civil rights movement with the peace movement," they said, "will serve the cause neither of civil rights nor of peace."

From the government there wasn't just hostility-there was fear. King had already demonstrated the ability to instigate massive unrest, and his rumored presidential candidacy would appeal to those appalled by the war.

For years the FBI had wiretapped King's home and office, intercepted phone conversations and planted paid informants within the SCLC; now it stepped up its surveillance. President Lyndon Johnson is said to have admitted privately, "That goddamn nigger preacher may drive me out of the White House."

Tensions were high and King's list of enemies was long when, the following spring, he came to Memphis to support a strike by (mostly black) sanitation workers who were demanding job safety, better wages and an end to racial discrimination on the job.

The murder

King visited Memphis twice in March 1968. On the 18th, he addressed a crowd of 17,000 supporters of the strike. He promised then that he'd return on March 28 to lead a citywide demonstration of sympathy for the workers.

The March 28 event erupted in violence. As demonstrators marched through the city, rampaging black youths broke store windows and looted. King tried to curtail the escalating violence by requesting that the demonstration be cut short. But by the time it was over, police had moved on the crowd, wielding mace, nightsticks and guns. One black youth was shot and killed, and 60 persons were injured. Nevertheless, King promised to return on April 3 to plan another demonstration; this time, he hoped, Memphis would see the power of his nonviolent approach.

King spent the last day of his life, April 4, 1968, closeted inside the Lorraine Motel on Mulberry Street, in one of Memphis' seedier neighborhoods. Alter a long day conferring with aides about the upcoming event, he was looking forward to a prime rib and soul food dinner at Rev. Samuel B. Kyles' home that evening.

Just before 6 pm, King and Kyles stepped out onto the second-floor balcony overlooking the motel's courtyard. King exchanged greetings with several persons who stood below, waiting to join him for dinner. Kyles headed downstairs to get his car. King stood alone on the balcony.

At 6:01 a single shot from a high-powered rifle cracked through the evening air. The bullet tore into the right side of King's face, sing him violently backward.

It wasn't until April 19 that investigators identified fingerprints on the gun thought to be the murder weapon. They knew then for the first time that the man they sought was James Earl Ray not Eric S. Gait) Even so, Ray eluded capture until June 8, when he was caught in London trying to board a plane for Brussels.

Ray spent the next nine months preparing to go to trial. Then, unexpectedly, on March 10, 1969, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Who was involved?

When the HSCA exonerated the government of any role in a King assassination conspiracy, their conclusion was based on a less-than-thorough review of only two government groups-the Memphis Police Department and the FBI. The evidence indicates that these groups shouldn't have been dismissed so readily, and that other government agencies may also have had a motive to kill King.

The Memphis Police Department

The Memphis Police Department (or MPD) had prepared for King's visit in three ways. First, several officers from the intelligence unit were stationed in the firehouse across from the Lorraine Motel to spy on King. Second, a four-man security detail was assigned to protect King. Third, tactical (TACT) units for "emergency or riot situations" were created to control any violence that might erupt as a result of King's presence.

The MPD made two changes in security arrangements in the early days of April: the four-man security detail assigned to King was withdrawn 25 hours before the assassination, and three to four TACT units were pulled back from the Lorraine Motel the morning of the assassination.

The first change probably wasn't conspiratorial. King's entourage didn't want the MPD security-they perceived it as part of the hostile white power structure and so refused to divulge the details of King's itinerary. Inspector Donald Smith claimed he got tired of "tagging along" without knowing where King was headed and asked permission to withdraw the detail.

But the shift in TACT units is more disturbing. These units, each consisting of three vehicles and twelve officers, had been formed alter violence erupted during King's March 28 visit to Memphis. From King's arrival on April 3 to the morning of the assassination, the units (a total of nine to twelve vehicles) were patrolling within the five to six block area "immediately surrounding" the Lorraine. On April 4, the units were pulled back to five blocks away.

The MPD's explanation-that the units withdrew because an "unidentified" member of King's entourage "instructed" them to do so-is suspect. Unlike the security detail, these units weren't there to protect King, but rather to protect the city of Memphis from the violence that might accompany King's visit.

While it's possible that King's staff would want the TACT squads kept at a distance, it's highly improbable that the MPD would comply. If anything, such a suggestion would lead police to suspect King's group was up to something. If the TACT units were in fact responding to a request that they stay out of sight, there was no need to have moved back five blocks. A distance of, say, two blocks would have been sufficient.

If the TACT vehicles had remained in place, or at least closer to the Lorraine, it would have been extremely difficult for anyone to escape the crime scene. As it was, only one unit-TACT 10-could respond quickly to news of the shooting. That's because it was taking a break in the firehouse near the Lorraine at the time King was shot.

More important actions were taken too late For-not at all. The dispatcher's order to seal off the two-block area around the Lorraine wasn't given until 6:06, three minutes after the shooting was reported. The dispatcher never issued a "signal Y," a code indicating that all main exits from Memphis should be blocked. He also never issued an APB, an all-points bulletin describing the suspect for the neighboring states of Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama. As a result, Ray (and any others involved) slipped through each law-enforcement net that ordinarily would have trapped him.

Lt. Kallaher, the "shift commander of communications" on April 4, tried to explain these failures of communication as a result of the "massive confusion" after the assassination. But this doesn't explain why the dispatcher ordered certain procedures and not others, and the confusion wasn't reflected in police transcripts.


In 1968, there wasn't any good evidence that the FBI had a motive to murder King. But subsequent revelations made clear FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's hatred of King and the Bureau's attempts to destroy "the Black Messiah" personally and politically through what it called COINTELPRO ("counterintelligence program"). Yet the HSCA's investigation of the FBI employed logic so questionable it might have been lifted from a primer issued by the Warren Commission. Here are some examples.

The HSCA reasoned that if the FBI had set up the assassination, it would need to have had control over Ray. By control, the committee seems to have meant that Ray would be checked in at a motel near the Lorraine. Since Ray stayed at a distant motel his first night in Memphis and didn't move to Brewer's boarding house until the next day, the HSCA concluded that the FBI must not have had control over Ray's movements and thus didn't mastermind the assassination.

Evidently it never occurred to the committee that in a well-planned assassination, the conspirators might elect to keep their trigger man away from the target area for as long as possible to reduce the chances that he could be identified after the shooting. The committee never defended the logic that a hit man must be dispatched to the crime scene as soon as he arrives in town.

With similarly dubious reasoning, the HSCA decided that since the FBI continued its dirty tricks against King right up to the time of the assassination, the Bureau was exonerated. After all, the committee deduced, it would hardly have been necessary to continue a nationwide program of harassment against a man soon to be killed. In a review of all COINTELPRO files on Dr. King, the committee found substantive evidence that the harassment program showed no signs of abatement as the fateful day approached. In other words, the HSCA didn't consider that the Bureau might be providing a cover for its complicity, or that the agents who ran COINTELPRO might not be the ones who plotted the assassination.


The HSCA's failure to investigate the CIA' stems in part from the impression the agency sought to project-that it had only a cursory interest in King and the SCLC, and that this interest was largely satisfied by whatever data Hoover shared with the agency. The CIA describes its own King file material as routine, oriented toward matters of foreign policy and centered on world reaction to King's death. A November 28, 1975 internal memorandum even states, "we have no indication of any Agency surveillance or letter intercept which involved King."

Not many documents are publicly available to challenge this claim, but those that are tell a different story. In January 1984, in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, I obtained 134 pages of heavily-deleted CIA documents on "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." and the "Southern Christian Leadership Conference." These documents indicate that the CIA not only received FBI data on King, but that in at least two instances, it passed data to the FBI.

The documents also indicate surveillance of King; for example, there's a July 10, 1966 dispatch containing photocopies of several scrawled notes, apparently made by King or members of his staff. There are also lists of phone calls placed from his Miami hotel during a two-day period, photocopies of receipts, a page from an appointment calendar with a message for King and an assortment of business cards. There was no indication who collected the data or how it was obtained.

It's likely that much more information exists about the CIA's interest in King. In December 1990, I interviewed an ex-CIA agent who'd been a high-ranking officer and field agent. Unfortunately, I can't describe the agent, the entire interview or even why he was willing to talk to me, since these facts could reveal his identity. I also have no way to verify his allegations, but I believe his story for two reasons: the interview was arranged by a person trusted by both of us, and the source's bona fides as a CIA agent have been validated by a non-agency source I trust, by a major corporation and by a network news organization (on a story unrelated to the King case).

This ex-agent confirmed that the CIA's publicly released King file is deceptively brief. Although there were very few cables in the file, he claimed that cable traffic on King was extensive, and went back as far back as 1963. He confirmed that in the spring of 1965, CIA agents worked directly with FBI agents to bug King's Miami hotel room, but this information wasn't filed with the CIA's Office of Security (which ran domestic operations). It was filed instead with the "Western Hemisphere desk," which was responsible for the agency's vast anti-Castro operations, including the Bay of Pigs invasion.

This deceptive filing assured that the agency's politically sensitive, if not illegal, bugging of King would never pop up in domestic-surveillance files. Instead it would be cloaked by the top security of clandestine, anti-Castro operations.

Why was the CIA so interested in King? Because of its attitude toward "black power groups" and their alleged communist connections. Jay Richard Kennedy, a highly respected CIA source with close ties to the civil rights movement, warned the agency about this alleged infiltration:

The Communist left is making an all out drive to get into the Negro movement .... Communists or Negro elements who will be directed by the Communists may be in a position to, if not take over the Negro movement, completely disrupt it and cause extremely critical problems for the Government of the United States.

Kennedy believed that this wasn't simply a domestic problem, to be handled by the FBI alone, but should be considered an "nternational situation." So the CIA targeted black political groups with zeal.

Solving the case

In 1978, the HSCA turned its findings over to the Justice Department and suggested further investigation. A decade later, the Justice Department claimed that all known leads had been checked arid that further investigation appears to be warranted... unless new information... becomes available."

Further investigation is warranted, for several reasons. First, the HSCA inquiry was glaringly inadequate. It's shameful that an investigation into the death of a man as important to this country's past and future as Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whom we now honor with a national holiday, was conducted so shabbily. He and his family-as well as the nation-deserve the full truth.

Second, the case has new leads, people and topics to be probed. If they're pursued, the question "who killed Martin Luther King?" may now be answerable.

* The National Security Agency, Defense\ Department, Air Force and CIA should be formally queried about any information they might have concerning Ray's aliases.

* The FBI and CIA should be required to produce all documents concerning their attempt to influence history or public opinion about the King case.

* The HSCA's files should be released to the public. Despite the committee's failures, their key documents and interviews could help to pursue the above leads. The film JFK evoked public pressure to release the HSCA's Kennedy files, but Congress still intends to keep its King files secret until the year 2028.

Who should conduct the investigation? It shouldn't be the FBI-even after two decades, the Bureau has at least a historical conflict of interest. Nor should the Justice Department have a primary role, due to its secrecy and inactivity during the decade following the HSCA's investigation. And another congressional effort would very likely become mired in the web of politics and personalities spawned by the previous committee.

The best alternative-although not without pitfalls-is to appoint a special prosecutor.

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