Inside Martin Luther King Jr.'s final, radical year

King's outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War and to economic inequality made him a target

Published January 15, 2018 6:47AM (EST)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968.  (AP/Charles Kelly)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968. (AP/Charles Kelly)

Excerpted with permission from "The Plot to Kill King" by William F. Pepper, Esq. Copyright 2018, Skyhorse Publishing. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

My relationship with Dr. King during the last year of his life may have hastened his demise by my pressing him to openly and forcefully oppose the war in Vietnam. This good man wept in my presence when he viewed the photographs I had taken of maimed and slaughtered Vietnamese children. My collaborative work with him and others in the movement precipitated my appointment as executive director of the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP) whose design proposed a King/Spock independent presidential ticket to oppose Lyndon Johnson and the war in 1968.

Dr. Benjamin Spock and I became close friends living during the period of the development of NCNP. His book "Baby and Child Care" was, at one time, second only to the Bible in sales. A leader of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), he became a leading antiwar advocate and was active in the movement, writing a supporting introduction for my article, “The Children of Vietnam.” A powerful antiwar activist, he was con­victed (overturned on appeal) and was prepared to run with Dr. King on a third-party presidential ticket, which, as NCNP’s executive director, it was my role to advance.

In early 1967, I opened my files on the Vietnam War to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize three years earlier. As a freelance journalist who witnessed firsthand the atrocities of the Vietnam War, I discussed the effects of the war on the civilian population and the ancient village road culture of the Vietnamese people with Dr. King, who was already inclined to formally announce his position on the war. He had previously voiced his growing concern about his country’s ever-greater role in what appeared to be an internal struggle for control of the nation by a nationalist movement seeking to overcome an oligarchic regime in the South, a regime previously beholden to Western economic interests.

It was not then clear to Dr. King that Ho-Chi Minh’s reverence for Jefferson, Lincoln, and American democracy, as he idealized it, made him the legitimate father of a unified Vietnam, but on April 4, 1967, in his speech at Riverside Church in Manhattan, Dr. King declared his formal opposition to the increasing American barbarities in Vietnam. By July 1967, against the disastrous backdrop of the Vietnam War, America began to burn not only through successful enemy attacks in Vietnam but from racial tensions and riots sparked by mounting anger over living conditions at home.

At the Spring Mobilization antiwar demonstrations in New York, on April 15 before 250,000 cheering and chanting citizens and after I had advanced his name as an alternative presidential candidate to Lyndon Johnson, Dr. King called on the government to “stop the bombing.”

He was already emerging as the key figurehead in a powerful coalition of the growing peace and civil rights movements, which were to form the basis of the “new politics.” The National Conference for New Politics (NCNP) was established to catalyze people nationwide. From this platform, Dr. King planned to move into mainstream politics as a potential candidate on a presidential ticket with Dr. Benjamin Spock in order to highlight the antipoverty and antiwar agenda. He called for conscientious objection, political activity, and a revolution in values to shift American society from materialism to humanism. As a result, he came under increasing attack.

Therefore, in very early 1967 I confronted King after he reached out to me, having read the Ramparts article, which catalogued the devastating effects of napalm and white phosphorus bombing that had been unleashed on the young and old of Vietnam. His prodigious conscience compelled him not only to formally announce his opposition to the war but to actively work and organize against it in every corner of America he visited.

There was great concern in the halls of power in America that this most honored of black Americans had decided to use the full force of his integrity, moral authority, and international prestige to challenge the might and moral bankruptcy of the leadership of the American state, which he freely characterized as the “greatest purveyor of violence on earth.”

His formal announcement of opposition and condemnation of his government generated serious apprehension in the boardrooms of the select list of large American corporations that were receiving enormous profits from the conflict in Vietnam. When business speaks with one voice, as it did in respect to the war or the purported extreme threat of war, at the time when Dr. King set himself up in opposition, the relevant government agencies and their officials became mere foot soldiers for the mighty economic interests. Out in front during war are the armed forces and the intelligence and law enforcement communities. Not far behind are the executive, the legislative, and the judicial legitimizers, who sanction the necessary action. Following in line are the media conglomerates, who as the publicists of government policy, though posing as independent voices of the people, vigorously support and defend the official policy in those serious national security instances of significant concern to the corporate establishment.

Virtually unanimously, and with one voice, the mass media condemned Dr. King’s opposition to the war. In the shadows, of course, were the forces they served.

When one understands this context and those times more than four decades ago, it is understandable that when Dr. King began to crusade against the war, he would cast a long shadow over the ruling economic forces of America. It is little wonder they shuddered at the possibility that his efforts might result in turning off the tap of the free-flowing profits. Should the American people demand an end to the war and should the war end, the losses were not something they could accept.

Perhaps it was for this reason alone that Dr. King had to be stopped.

If this was not reason enough, Dr. King gave these awesomely powerful forces another inducement to eliminate him. He had been wrestling with the problem of economic injustice for some time. It was, he said, in summary, one thing to gain the civil right to eat at a formerly segregated lunchroom counter, but quite another to be able to pay the bill. This was the next goal and, in the world’s dominant capitalist society, an essential component of freedom and equality, and one that was the essence of the movement for social equality and the core of the movement for social justice. The war had made things worse. Not only were a disproportionate number of blacks being sent ten thousand miles from home to serve as cannon fodder, but the cost of the war increasingly required that essential social services and programs in their communities be curtailed. The poor knew better than anyone that President Johnson’s commitment to “guns and butter” could not be fulfilled. In effect there was an undeclared cessation of the “war on poverty.”

For Dr. King, opposition to the war against the people of a poor, non-white, ancient culture was in harmony with, and a natural extension of, the civil rights struggle against oppression and the denial of basic freedoms and essential services at home.

By mid-1967, he began to formulate a strategy to address the widening gap between the rich and the poor. The failure of the success of this effort, at this writing in 2014 and 2015, has resulted in the greatest disparity of wealth in the Republic since 1929.

This project gradually took the form not of simply a march but of the extensive Poor People’s Campaign and mobilization to culminate in an encampment in the shadow of the Washington Memorial. The projection was for the establishment of a tent city with five hundred thousand of the nation’s poorest and most alienated citizens. They would remain as long as it took to get action from the Congress.

If the wealthy, powerful interests across the nation would find intolerable Dr. King’s escalating activity against the war, his planned mobilization of half a million poor people with the intention of laying siege to Congress could only engender outrage and fear.

They knew that it was not going to be possible for Congress to satisfy the demands of the multitude of poor, alienated Americans led by Dr. King, and they believed that the growing frustration could well lead to violence. In such a situation with the unavailability of sufficient troops to control the mass of people, the Capitol could be overrun. Similar events in France come to mind, with demonstrations and turbulence in cities throughout the country, but unlike De Gaulle, Lyndon Johnson did not have an Andre Malraux to counsel him—nothing less than a revolution might result. This possibility could not be allowed to materialize, and neither could Dr. King’s crusade against the war and social economic deprivation be permitted to continue.

When the NCNP Convention was held on Labor Day weekend, many of us believed that nothing less than the nation’s rebirth was on the agenda. But a small, aggressive group had urged each arriving black delegate to join an obviously planned Black Caucus that at one point threatened to take Dr. King hostage. This threat was passed over my shoulder (as a note) as he spoke. Dr. King made a spirited speech, calling for unity and action, after which I had to arrange for him to leave quickly under guard for his own safety. Black Caucus delegates voted en bloc. There were walkouts, hostilities, and splits. Though we didn’t admit it at the time, the NCNP died as a political force that weekend. Reverend Bill Coffin (who would officiate at my marriage six years later at Yale) and I wept at that realization. We had not understood the power of the forces against us and their ability to divide the emerging coalition and to infiltrate and manipulate movement organizations.

Dr. King, however, along with the shadow NCNP movement, stepped up his antiwar efforts and threw himself into developing the Poor People’s Campaign, which was scheduled to bring hundreds of thousands of the nation’s poor blacks, Hispanics, whites, and intellectuals to Washington in the spring of 1968. He would, of course, not live to see it.

All of these efforts came to naught as a result of government infiltration and subversion, and ultimately with Dr. King’s assassination. The country moved further to the right over the next ten years, and as a result, I withdrew from active participation in national political activity. The assassination of Bobby Kennedy, barely two months after Dr. King was cut down, reinforced the dismay and cynicism of many, myself included.

What was beyond our understanding at the time, and is discussed in detail in my book "The Plot to Kill King," was the close association of powerful individuals and corporate interests, with their foot soldiers in government and, in particular, the military and the intelligence establishments. Over one hundred cities were burned or seriously disrupted in 1967 to 1968. The nation was on edge. A revolution was barely averted in France. Opposition to the war and growing economic disparity at home led to growing dissent, which in turn fed the peace and freedom movement.

The army’s reserves were virtually depleted and there was serious concern as to whether forces were available to put down a concerted rebellion on domestic shores. Dr. King was regarded, as the shooter has revealed to me (discussed later), as a “shit starter” who must be removed. The unease of the military and intelligence forces and their liaison with each other during that last year reflects this fear. Chronological notes of significant meetings and events are included during this time, primarily of the military, but also referencing FBI and CIA participation. The degree of surveillance of Martin King and Robert Kennedy reveals the threat they posed.

Not for a moment, however, during that turbulent time, did I hesitate to believe that someone other than James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan (in regards to the RFK assassination) had been responsible for the back-to-back assassinations. What a difference the evidence from over nearly four decades has made.

The actual upending of my initial Dr. King assassination perceptions began with my conversation with Ralph Abernathy in 1977. This eventually led to my many months’ long preparation for the interrogation of James Earl Ray at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary that took place in August 1978—and changed everything. Calmly and quietly, James left us with a multitude of issues and unanswered questions. The five-hour interrogation session was observed by body language specialist, Dr. Howard Berens. After the interrogation, Reverend Abernathy, Reverend Lawson, Dr. Berens, and I agreed that regardless of what role James may have played, he was not the shooter.

Thus began a personal investigation that only now, in the autumn of 2015, has been completed.

The first book, while not a prerequisite to reading this one, set out the details of that initial investigative work from 1978 through 1995 and my relationship with James. (I agreed to represent him in 1988, ten years after beginning to investigate the case, when I finally became convinced that he was an unknowing scapegoat.)

After a wide variety of legal efforts, which included appealing James Earl Ray’s case all the way to the Supreme Court, I opted to use the vehicle of a civil trial as a means of putting our evidence before a court and testing it under oath. We had hard evidence against Loyd Jowers, some of which only emerged from Jowers’s own admissions in interviews with Dexter King and me, within the statute of limitations. In such a civil trial, the family and heirs of Dr. King would be able to sue him, and it would enable us to finally expose much of the evidence we had gathered. So in the autumn of 1999 we went to trial in Judge James Swearingen’s Memphis courtroom. It would be the black judge’s last case.

Some seventy witnesses and thirty days later, a jury took fifty-nine minutes to find for the King family and against Loyd Jowers and agents of the government of the United States, the state of Tennessee, and the city of Memphis. Jowers’s liability was assessed at 30 percent, while the government’s liability was put at 70 percent. The extraordinary array of verbal testimonial and documentary evidence is set out in detail in my second book An Act of State. Suffice it to say, the roles and link between the Mafia, the military, local law enforcement, and government officials became crystal clear.

By William F. Pepper

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