Book Review: Who Really Killed Martin Luther King: The Case against Lyndon B Johnson and J Edgar Hoover, by Phil Nelson 2018, Skyhorse Publishing
Choose any notable event between presidents Calvin Coolidge and Richard Nixon (even beyond), such was his impact any subsequent discussion is far from complete without significant reference to J Edgar Hoover, the long-time founding Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); chances are that its Director's 'fingerprints' were all over said "event". This is one of those stories.
Such knowledge though about one of the most iconic and consequential figures in American history has only come to pass incrementally in the ensuing years after his death in 1972. Moreover, choose any significant individual public or political figure during that era, and the likelihood is that Hoover knew more about that person than they might've known about themselves. He most certainly knew much more about them than they themselves might've cared for anyone else to know, much less someone like Hoover.
One such "individual" on Edgar's 'dance-card' was the iconic civil rights leader and anti-Vietnam war campaigner Dr Martin Luther King (MLK); one such "event" was his assassination on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, TN., and the subsequent cover-up by the forces behind the murder and/or those closely aligned with them. The man who was subsequently charged with the crime, James Earl Ray, spent the rest of his life in prison, despite maintaining his innocence up until his last breath. This is an outcome we might safely opine ranks as one of the most contrived perversions of what passes for justice in the Grand American "And Justice for All" Narrative.
There can surely be little doubt now there was a high level conspiracy to eliminate King, one planned and orchestrated from the highest levels of the U.S. government on down the ranks and that James Earl Ray was framed. In short, he was the fall-guy, the patsy, and his involvement in the King assassination was both peripheral and unknowing. The essence of this preamble becomes compelling when one reads the just released book by one such "intrepid" author Phil Nelson, titled: Who REALLY Killed Martin Luther King Jr.? -- The Case Against Lyndon B. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover.
By referencing all available evidence and documents whilst drawing upon the extraordinary work of previous authors, most notably Dr William Pepper (to whom we shall return), but others as well, Nelson delivers a thorough exposition of the real backstory behind one of modern American history's most defining and traumatic events. In the process he duly debunks both the renditions and reputations of several other authors whose names have frequently been linked with the official, yet totally bogus, narrative of his assassination, again most notably William Bradford Huie.
In doing so, as already indicated, the author shines the spotlight on two of the most reprehensible, criminally-minded public figures ever to 'grace' the political stage and be accorded the public trust in the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free: Messrs Hoover and Johnson. Given the plethora of folks -- both living and dead -- who might fit the above profile, by any measure we can say that that is a big call.
It's axiomatic that there was no shortage of people throughout Edgar's reign who pissed him off, a not especially difficult achievement even for those who went out of their way to avoid doing so. Hoover was to be sure one of the Great Haters in that aforementioned narrative. And there can be little doubt that it was King -- along with Robert Kennedy (RFK) and his big brother John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) -- who invited Edgar's hatred more so than anyone else.
Hoover, along with LBJ -- arguably one of the most unhinged Oval Office occupants to date, an observation difficult to refute for those who take the time to read Nelson's earlier work on the man -- conspired to eliminate King. All up then, if there is a more symbiotically iniquitous alliance in the annals of U.S. political enterprise, then this writer who'd be keen to know about it.
Insofar as Nelson's book is concerned, his meticulous deconstruction of the situation and circumstances attending the assassination and the actual (versus the fabricated) facts related to it, and the now half-century campaign to preserve intact the official narrative, must now stand as the definitive account of this extraordinary event -- as shameful as it is tragic -- in America's history.
That said, in a 'cut to the chase' kinda way, the following summary might be sufficient to inform those not overly familiar with some of the "actual facts", and set the stage for what is to follow.
i) The assassination of MLK was planned more than 2 years before, and was the brainchild of Johnson and Hoover, with Edgar's 2IC Clyde Tolson the point-man, ably abetted by Cartha "Deke" DeLoach;
ii) The motivations for Hoover and LBJ were various and sometimes over-lapping, with Hoover having a visceral hatred of King because of his activism and his race, and LBJ resenting his popularity, political influence and opposition to the Vietnam war;
iii) The plotters cunningly planned to have the assassination portrayed from the off as the work of another "lone nut", in James Earl Ray's case, '[A] vicious Southern racist and hater, stalker, [and] murderer', itself a total fabrication;
iv) It was the famed novelist, William Bradford Huie, an old crony of Hoover's, who was given a "mission" to create this meme for Ray, one whose shelf life endures to this day, and from whom so many others took their lead in its perpetuation;
v) A civil trial in 1999 exonerated Ray (who'd died in prison the previous year just over 30 years after the murder), and it found that a government conspiracy was responsible for King's murder, [and] that Ray was a 'patsy' with no knowing involvement in the hit; and most shockingly,
vi) King was not killed instantly as most people believe, but in fact was later murdered by his attending doctor who smothered him with a pillow, a contingency which had been allowed for by the plotters in the event of such an outcome.
From these basic premises, Nelson methodically unpacks this bespoke meme regarding James Earl Ray -- as removed from reality as it could possibly be imagined -- as the massive deceit that it was. He then presents us with a revised account in its place, based upon hard evidence that exonerates Ray. It needs be noted that Nelson's account is supplemented by many other authors, including Harold Weisberg, Mark Lane, and, particularly, William Pepper.
Insofar as the MLK story goes, it is to Dr William Pepper that Nelson 'dips his lid' most prominently as being his most inspired source and the most indefatigable of investigators in the search for the real truth about the man's murder, one of America's most seminal and quintessential of 'state crimes against democracy'. Pepper has written three books on this event, the latest being 2017's The Plot to Kill King: The Truth Behind the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.