Later in the year he proposed the most radical vision of his career-a nonviolent campaign of civil obedience planned for the spring of 1968 designed to tie the Nation's Capital in knots, if need be, to force Congress into shifting massive resources from war abroad to human needs at home.
With these bold stands on two new fronts, the charismatic preacher began moving inexorably toward a risky showdown with the establishment.
J. Edgar Hoover's FBI had literally wanted King dead for years, having sent him a blackmail tape recording in 1964, allegedly from a bugged hotel room, accompanied by a note urging him to commit suicide "before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation."
In December 1963, shortly after the killing of President Kennedy, Hoover's agency declared its intention of "neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader." A 1964 FBI memo discussed the urgent need for "the removal of King from the national scene." The Bureau's unlawful tactics included extensive surveillance, a defamation campaign, disruption of King's efforts through dirty tricks, and planting of informants. In addition, as reporter Jeff Cohen wrote in The Rebel on November 22, 1983, Hoover "used anonymous phone calls and 'poison pen' letters to create dissension among King's staff and associates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The struggle for black equality had always been inherently "subversive" to Hoover, who had mercilessly hounded the African-American leader Marcus Garvey during the 1920s, years before Martin Luther King, Jr. was born. The FBI chief's war on black America was an ongoing obsession that lasted a half-century, and he had always stepped up his surveillance efforts during wartime, claiming that dissatisfied black people would be tempted to join the enemy. During World War I he asked the FBI to spy on black leaders in order to learn their "political stand . . . toward the peace treaty and the league of nations;" and, acting on the assumption that the black community was susceptible to enemy propaganda during World War II-especially that of the non-white Japanese-initiated a campaign against black institutions and individuals that included the planting of paid informants, wiretapping of phones, bugging of offices, and a defamation campaign designed to undermine nonviolent organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League-the same tactics that would later be brought to bear against King during the Vietnam War.
By 1968, the already overwhelming pressures on King took on a whole new dimension. As the Church Committee found during the 1970s, FBI agents were told in March 1968 to neutralize King, lest he become a "messiah" who could "unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement." In addition, his opposition to the Vietnam War during his final year subjected him to Army surveillance as a perceived national security threat, as did his plans to bring his Poor People's Campaign to Washington in the spring.
In an eye-opening investigative report for the Memphis Commercial Appeal on March 21, 1993, Stephen Tompkins wrote that the Army's intelligence branch "spied on the family of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for three generations," often targeting black ministers such as King's father. "The spying was born of a conviction by top Army intelligence officers that black Americans were ripe for subversion-first by agents of the German Kaiser, then by Communists, later by the Japanese and eventually by those opposed to the Vietnam War. At first, the Army used a reporting network of private citizens that included church members, black businessmen . . . and black educators . . . It later employed cadres of infiltrators, wiretaps, and aerial photography by U-2 spy planes."
"As the civil rights movement merged with anti-war protests in the late 1960s, some Army units began supplying sniper rifles and other weapons of war to civilian police departments," Tompkins reported. "Army Intelligence began planning for what some officers believed would soon be armed rebellion." As King planned a massive march on Washington, "the Army's intelligence system was keenly focused on King and desperately searching for a way to stop him . . . the review of thousands of government documents and interviews with people involved in the spying revealed that by early 1968 Army Intelligence regarded King as a major threat to national security."
If this sounds farfetched, it helps to put aside the incomplete image of Martin Luther King, Jr. presented to us every third Monday in January-the man with the eloquent "dream," a distant and non-specific vision conveniently kept frozen in that 1963 speech or deferred to an ever-receding future-and look at the Dr. King and the USA of 1968, both pushed by events to the breaking point.
Even the 1963 March on Washington, a memory that now seems to radiate a benign, rosy glow, in fact took place in an atmosphere of controversy, amid fears of violence. President John F. Kennedy, the courageous war hero in the White House only a few blocks away from the historic gathering, did not dare attend or lend his name to the event, for fear that rioting or some other unforeseen development might occur and hurt him politically. So it is not difficult to imagine how much higher the stakes were five years later, when the immensely popular preacher dared to threaten the establishment by blending the civil rights movement with the growing antiwar movement and, at the same time, took on the highly charged issue of economic inequality, a crisis he said justified a Poor People's March designed to cause "major, massive dislocations" until specific demands were met. Some of the nation's most powerful people were determined to stop King, one way or another, before he could do any such thing.
Controversy continues to surround the role of James Earl Ray, the small-time crook who pled guilty on March 10, 1969, and withdrew his guilty plea three days later, saying he had been threatened and coerced. Ray spent the next 30 years fighting for a new trial. Several leading assassination researchers have maintained, after years of investigation, that Ray is an innocent patsy, a view eventually shared even by King's family. The bullet that killed King was never matched to Ray's rifle; and although Ray's fingerprints were found on his rifle found lying on the sidewalk outside the boarding house, his fingerprints were not found in the room from which he allegedly shot King.
Dr. Philip H. Melanson, author of The Martin Luther King Assassination: New Revelations on the Conspiracy and Cover-up, 1968-1991, meticulously presents a compelling case that Ray was being manipulated by powerful conspirators. Melanson explores the curious and revealing fact that Ray, who was in the habit of using the names of people he knew as aliases, suddenly began using the names of four men from the Toronto area after his escape from prison in1967, although he had never been to Toronto. Three of the four men bore a close physical resemblance to Ray. Melanson notes that the man whose name became Ray's primary alias, Eric S. Galt, "also had two scars-one on the palm of his right hand, another on his forehead (just barely to the right of his nose). So did James Earl Ray." Ray came to resemble Galt even more closely when he, like Galt, had plastic surgery to change the shape of his nose-a highly unusual way for a small-time crook to change his appearance.
Melanson explores the possibility that the US intelligence community-which had access to Canadian government files on defense-contractor employee Galt and the other aliases, and which viewed the antiwar King through its own distorted lens as a national security threat-was directing the actions of Ray. Revealingly, the earliest wanted posters referred to Ray as Eric S. Galt, despite his having used one of his other aliases at the Memphis rooming house-further evidence that Ray was a pawn unwittingly playing out his role according to a pre-written script.
Decades later, a disturbing new scenario of the King murder finally began to be revealed. Loyd Jowers, owner of Jim's Grill across from the Lorraine Motel, broke his silence during the 1990s, claiming to have played a role in the assassination. According to the chronology constructed by attorney and former King colleague William Pepper in his book Orders to Kill, "On the weekend of March 15 James [Earl Ray] was instructed by Raul [Ray's alleged handler] to leave Los Angeles and drive to New Orleans where he would receive further instructions. At this time Memphis produce man Frank Liberto asked Loyd Jowers to repay a 'big' favor. Jowers, who had been alerted earlier by another mutual acquaintance, was told by Liberto that the brush area behind his Jim's Grill was to be used as a sniper's lair for the assassination of Dr. King, who would at some time in the next three to four weeks be staying at the Lorraine Motel . . ."
"Jowers was told that the police would not be there," wrote Pepper. "A patsy was also going to be provided and Jowers would be handsomely paid. Liberto explained that the money came out of New Orleans."