In retrospect: King assassination stirs controversy 50 years later

Remembering ‘drum major for justice’

Gregg Reese OW Contributor | 4/5/2018, midnight
The widow of a murder victim extending a gesture of sympathy to the man..

The news ignited rioting in more than 100 cities and towns across the United States, as a manhunt was launched across the nation and five foreign countries for the assailant. Two months later, James Earl Ray was apprehended at Heathrow Airport in London, England.

Seeking out a conspiracy

"People find it very hard to believe that such a great man could be brought down by such a hollow and puny person. I think that we want to believe that it takes some kind of massive conspiracy of hundreds of people to bring down one person. But it’s just not the case.”                                               

—Hampton Sides, author of

“Hellhound on his Trail”

William F. Pepper came to the attention of Martin Luther King with the publication of his Ramparts Magazine photo essay “The Children of Vietnam,” in 1967 (https://ratical.org/ratville/ JFK/ChildrenOfVietnam.html). The images and text depicting the impact of the war on its civilian population was a compelling motivation for King’s decision to oppose the war. For the last year of the civil right’s leader’s life, Pepper was a trusted friend and ally, and afterwards made the monumental decision to represent Ray (whom he maintains was a patsy) in a 1993 “mock” trial in a courtroom setting televised by HBO.

Broadcast on the 25th anniversary of the April 4 assassination under the title “Guilt or Innocence: The Trial of James Earl Ray,” it was taped at Memphis’ Shelby County Courthouse, with Ray testifying via a live satellite hookup from his lockup at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. Curiously ignored by the major media, Ray was exonerated (but remained incarcerated) in this legal simulation; a verdict embraced by the rest of the King family (see the complete transcripts at http://www.thekingcenter.org/sites/default/files/KING%20FAMILY%20TRIAL%20TRANSCRIPT.pdf).

Pepper is part of a long line of independent investigators attracted to the King killing, including attorney Mark Lane and comedian Dick Gregory, who collaborated on the 1978 expose “Code Name: Zero.” Others who’ve disputed the official verdict include the late Steve Cokely, the leading African American conspiracy buff. 

Pepper is possibly best known for representing the King family in a 1999 civil suit which found the United States government guilty of scheming to terminate the upstart preacher in a “mock trial.”

The family received $100 to cover legal expenses as they received confirmation that their patriarch was a victim of a multi-tiered governmental conspiracy.

In the interim, Pepper has written three books to support his reasoning: “Orders to Kill (1995), “An Act of State (2008)”, and 2017’s “The Plot to Kill King.”

Now an emeritus minister and college professor, James Lawson states that the rash of mid century assassinations (including Medgar Evers in 1963) changed the country decisively. Lawson personally participated with Peppers in an independent investigation on Ray’s behalf (he calls both “men of intelligence and integrity”), and went as far as presiding over James Earl Ray’s 1998 funeral.

As this article was finalized, Lawson was in the process of reading “The Plot to Kill King,” and concurs with most of its revelations. Aside from Pepper’s work, Lawson cites 2009’s “The 13th Juror: The Official Transcript of the Martin Luther King Assassination Conspiracy Trial” (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform), as proof “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that Ray did not plan or pull the trigger in the King murder. This sentiment is shared by the King family and key associates within the civil rights movement.