Authors Note: Last week we investigated the Soviet Union’s KGB (intelligence agency) which attempted to discredit or assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King in hopes of starting a race war during the Cold War (1949-1989). This week we investigate the FBI’s attempt to commit similar acts of sabotage.
April 4, 1967, was a milestone in the public life of Martin Luther King Jr. Heretofore, he had been known primarily as a civil rights activist, but today he was making a departure from his previous ideological doctrine. Today in New York’s historical Riverside Church he was going to come out publicly against the Vietnam War. King had made public utterances against the conflict before, taking care not to alienate his supporters in the White community, but today the war and its moral ramifications would be the main focus of his address (hence its title “Beyond Vietnam”) before more than 3,000 parishioners in one of the foremost Black churches in the United States. Unbeknownst to King, his proclamation would again place him in the crosshairs of the FBI.
For Dr. King, it was part of a logical progression. The conflict in a strange, little country few even knew existed resonated mightily within the core of his being, since increasingly larger numbers of those designated for combat in that far off corner of the world were young “Negro” boys, as they were called by polite society back then, and many of those close to him, especially his wife, Coretta Scott King, were urging him to become more vocal. More importantly, he may have reached a point where, as a man of the cloth, he realized his allegiance to the world at large as opposed to one specific church congregation or ethnic group.
Finally, President Lyndon B. Johnson, normally an ardent proponent of civil rights, took steps to divert funds from the War on Poverty to Vietnam in December of 1966, which forced King to question the rationale of taking “young Black men who have been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover enjoyed a position of power equaled by few men in the history of U.S. politics. Serving under eight American presidents, more than one of his “superiors” suppressed the urge to have him fired no doubt because of the political backlash and retaliation that was sure to follow. During his almost 50-year tenure at the helm, he amassed vast dossiers on potential enemies in the government and political arena and beyond, specializing in the sort of inflammatory information they would go to great lengths to keep covered.
A man given to many pet peeves, the foremost of which was subversion, he was known for his relentless pursuit of those (in his view) who constituted a threat to the security of the government. During the course of his career they’d included leftist radicals in the aftermath of World War I, bank robbers and bootleggers during the Depression, Nazi saboteurs in World War II, and communist sympathizers during the 1950s.
Now, deep in the turbulence of the ‘60s, he faced his biggest challenge. Radical elements seemed to be sprouting up on every college campus to openly exhibit contempt for American ideals and institutions, and sweeping up the best and brightest of the Baby-boomer generation in the process. Of particular concern to Hoover was the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, which he saw as being ripe for infiltration by the Communist Party.
Specifically distasteful to the F.B.I. director was the movement’s most famous proponent, Dr. King, whose alleged promiscuous sexual liaisons offended Hoover’s puritanical sensibilities. Since his death, Hoover has been the subject of numerous insinuations and innuendoes, including speculation that he was a cross-dressing homosexual with hidden African American ancestry, one source being literary icon and fellow Washington, D.C. native Gore Vidal, which may explain his relentless pursuit of individuals with similar backgrounds and preferences.
“Hoover was becoming famous, and it was always said of him—in my family and around the city—that he was mulatto. People said he came from a family that had ‘passed.’ It was the word they used for people of Black origin who, after generations of inbreeding, have enough White blood to pass themselves off as White. That’s what was always said about Hoover.” -Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, 1993.
The idea that homophobes (those with an irrational fear or hatred of gays) are themselves a repressed homosexual goes back to Sigmund Freud’s initial musings on the nature of human behavior. Ethnic self-hatred is common enough to have spawned a number of studies, possibly the best known case being that of closeted U.S. Attorney Roy Cohn (and a political ally of Hoover) who zealously railroaded fellow Jews Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair for passing atomic weapons secrets to Russia, and strongly opposed gay-rights legislation before he himself died of AIDS.
As for Hoover, much has been made of the fact that for such a well-known public figure, little documentation was available on his early life, with no birth certificate on record until he was well into his 40s, along with his unusually close association with fellow F.B.I. man and lifelong bachelor Clyde Tolson.
Hoover’s inclination toward the persecution of African American political groups went back to Marcus Garvey and the Black Nationalist movement in the early 1920s.
By the late ‘60s he had developed an intelligence apparatus unsurpassed in its ability to amass information on any conceivable person or subject, and implemented a program called COINTELPRO specifically to disrupt dissident political organizations. COINTELPRO contributed to at least one murder, that of White civil rights volunteer Viola Liuzzo, and after her death circulated gossip about her alleged sexual hi-jinks with her Black co-workers.
Dr. King’s activism, viewed as radical and subversive, had made him the subject of countless vendettas, resulting in an arrest record consisting of such various offenses as contempt of court, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, driving without a license, loitering, tax evasion, and violating probation.
The F.B.I. continued the harassment on their end by forwarding damaging information on his personal proclivities to colleges and universities that conferred honorary degrees and other accolades on him. His increased visibility in the media, nationally and internationally, worked Hoover into a frenzy, and his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 proved to be the last straw, with King, under the code name “Zorro,” designated for termination with extreme prejudice. This humble Baptist preacher was quickly becoming the embodiment of the F.B.I. director’s worst fears: a Black Messiah with the charisma and resources to unite the masses.
Continuing his harassment in earnest, Hoover’s minions uncovered evidence that a preteen aged King, despondent over his grandmother’s illness and subsequent death, had attempted suicide. Hoping to capitalize on this, COINTELPRO concocted a bogus letter purportedly written by a civil rights colleague confronting King on a number of indiscretions, and urging him to take his life. Such tactics were common in the Bureau’s campaign against enemies of the state.
Caucasian movie star Jean Seberg irked the powers that be by using her fame to support such distasteful organizations as the American Indian Movement, the Black Panther Party (BPP), and the NAACP. Hoover was reputed to have personally vowed to “take care of those two bitches,” referring to Seberg and fellow Hollywood activist Jane Fonda. In the twisted mentality of those manning the F.B.I.’s Los Angeles field office, Seberg’s associations amounted to more than just political assistance. Former agent and whistle blower M. Wesley Swearingen reminisced:
“Jean was giving aid and comfort to the enemy, the BPP … The giving of her White body to a Black man was an unbearable thought for many of the White agents. An agent [allegedly Richard W. Held] was overheard to say, a few days after I arrived in Los Angeles from New York, ‘I wonder how she’d like to gobble my d* while I shove my .38 up that Black bastard’s a’” [a reference to BPP theorist Raymond “Masai” Hewitt, with whom Seberg was reputedly having an affair]. (“Bonjour Tristesse – the story of Jean Seberg’s destruction by COINTELPRO”)
Preying on her tendency toward depression and paranoia, Hoover retaliated by concocting a rumor that the child Seberg was pregnant with had been conceived by a Black civil rights worker and having it placed in the gossip columns of such publications as the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek. This harassment so effectively traumatized her that it caused her to miscarriage. Seberg achieved a twisted sort of vindication when she held a press conference the next day and openly displayed the still born corpse of her dead White child, but COINTELPRO’s efforts were eventually rewarded when she succumbed to a lethal combination of alcohol and barbiturates years later.
Similar efforts to neutralize King were not successful (the letter reached King, but well after his being awarded the Nobel Prize, which Hoover wanted to prevent) but Hoover and his underlings were nothing if not resilient. Legions of crack pot groups committed to arrest the advance of integration were available for deployment, along with countless sad sacks and losers ready for enlistment as pawns in whatever role was required, either as decoy or triggerman. Surveillance and wiretaps were stepped up, with special attention paid to Dr. King’s extramarital sexual affairs. Illegal break ins of organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) popularly known as “black bag jobs” were a common occurrence.
For the most part, the accused assassin, James Earl Ray’s life had been an exercise in mediocrity. Drummed out of the army for “ineptness and lack of adaptability,” he drifted into a life of petty crime in which he distinguished himself with the uncanny knack for quick apprehension shortly after his pathetic attempts at burglary, forgery, or the liquor store holdups in which he specialized.
Despite a lackluster career as a petty criminal, Ray possessed ingenuity and resourcefulness, displayed when he escaped from a state prison and went on the lam for almost a year before his apprehension at Heathrow Airport in London (presumably headed for White supremacist Rhodesia). Along the way, he somehow became involved in a convoluted scenario, the origins of which we will assuredly never know, and was conveniently fingered as the lone assassin (under circumstances bearing a passing resemblance to those surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy five years prior) in the murder of Martin Luther King.
To this day Ray has never been tried before a jury of his peers, since he conveniently confessed to the killing to avoid the death penalty (before recanting three days later), and spent the rest of his life unsuccessfully seeking a retrial.
Two separate schools of thought have evolved around Ray, one viewing him as a right-wing fanatic whose flirtation with Nazism contributed to his early separation from the army, while the other side contends he never exhibited any racist tendencies (as does Ray in his 1992 autobiography). Like many convicts, Ray found time to be married while in prison. Particularly remarkable about his wedding is that it was presided over by the Reverend James Lawson, associate and close personal friend of Dr. King, conducting the ceremony not as a sign of his belief in Ray’s guilt or innocence, but merely as part of his obligation as a man of God. Also noteworthy was the identity of Ray’s best man, one Mark Lane, Kennedy-King conspiracy theorist and author of numerous books (1966’s Rush To Judgment is considered the catalyst in raising questions about the The JFK assassination).
Gerald Posner may be considered Mark Lane’s polar opposite. Both are lawyers who transitioned into authorship specializing in the lucrative genre of investigative journalism, albeit on different sides of the fence. In works like Code Name Zorro and others, Lane has postured the idea that Ray could be no more than a patsy, a role he assigned to Lee Harvey Oswald in earlier books about the Kennedy affair. Posner has focused his energies at poking holes in theories linking Ray to Army Intelligence, the F.B.I., and other various shady individuals and groups, just as he argued for the idea of the lone gunman in 1993’s Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK.
Rev. Lawson graciously granted OW an interview and reminisced about a pivotal point in our recent history when every Black public figure who didn’t “toe the line” was assigned a “controller,” assigned to shadow their movements. (As an interesting aside, a friend of Rev. Lawson encountered an individual at a social function. After several minutes of polite conversation, the man revealed that a year earlier, he had been Lawson’s controller!).
A leading theoretician of the tactics of nonviolence, Rev. Lawson was chairman of the strike committee that formed after Black sanitation workers went on strike for better working conditions in Memphis, and invited Dr. King down to bring attention to the protest and, unfortunately, an appointment with destiny. He confirmed preliminary research for this article that indicated the first person to reach the fallen civil rights advocate on that fateful day was a member of a (militant) community organizing group. This person was later revealed to be an undercover police informant with possible ties to military intelligence (and later a C.I.A. employee).
Also noteworthy are the scores of witnesses present at the crime scene but never interviewed, including Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young. The catastrophic murder of an internationally known person which ignited riots in most of America’s cities from coast to coast was treated as a run of the mill homicide and filtered through the justice system.
During the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the mid 1970’s Rev. Lawson declined to testify, reasoning that a closed session (which was mandated) would merely be an opportunity for unchecked tampering, citing the numerous smear campaigns and other maneuverings that resulted in a stacked deck involving those chosen to sit in on the hearings.
Shifting through his personal recollections of the alleged hitman, Lawson points out that Ray was a petty criminal without a significant history of violence (in one of the few instances where he used a firearm, he actually shot himself in the foot!). Naïve and unsophisticated before his single brush with notoriety, Ray used the prison complex to educate himself, in the end achieving wisdom and an understanding of the system that had made him an unwitting dupe.
One contemporary train of thought has the President being merely a figurehead for the powers that be, the seat of government too large, too consequential to be an instrument of self-expression.
In the movie “JFK,” conspiracy theorist extraordinaire Oliver Stone postulates that President John Kennedy signed his own death warrant by going against U.S. national security, which included continued involvement in Vietnam.
Administration of a modern military expedition President Dwight Eisenhower clarified this for a modern constituency when he warned of the emergence of a military-industrial-complex in his Farewell Address in 1961, built on the ideas of Marine General Smedley Butler in his brief “War is a Racket” from 1935.
Of paramount importance is not the existence of a legitimately elected Head of State, rather, it is the occupancy of personage to ensure that the system continues to run smoothly and efficiently. Intangibles and abstract notions like equality, human rights, virtue, and that arcane and antiquated whim called morality must be secondary considerations at best.
Thus King’s concerns about the loss and suffering of those conscripted to conduct armed conflict, as well as ideas as to the fairness in how those fighting were selected, were, and are dangerous, part of an ugly trend that possibly started when Muhammad Ali offered the opinion that he “got nothing against no Viet Cong” (and not “No Vietnamese ever called me nier,” as has been widely quoted).
As King made his way toward Memphis, he was feeling pressure from all sides. The growing militant faction, if not dismissing him as an out and out Uncle Tom, regarded him as behind the times. His colleagues who had struggled at his side in the trenches at the beginning of the movement felt like he was overstepping his boundaries by meddling in world affairs, and perhaps he was. It was one thing to march for equal rights and the opportunity to fully share in the privileges of American citizenship, quite another to question the morality of an international maneuver involving the economic prosperity of a huge chunk of America’s (and the world’s) private industry, not to mention the redistribution of the country’s wealth.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot to death as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Retired FBI Special Agent Arthur L. Murtagh testified before Congress ten years later that he watched an Atlanta Field Office agent that afternoon “jump for joy,” stating something to the effect of “We finally got the s.o.b.”