MLK Jr.'s Unfinished Business

Coretta Scott King is restfully buried -- but her burning desire to know who really killed her husband wasn't buried with her.

As she's quoted on the King Center website: "There is abundant evidence that there was a high level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband."

A month before the 38th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, nearly one quarter of House members agree with her. More than fifty of them have endorsed a bill by Georgia representative Cynthia McKinney to reopen the King assassination investigation. A bevy of civil rights leaders have also endorsed the bill. The bill is currently in the House Government Reform Committee.

McKinney designed the bill partly as a tribute to the King family's wishes to get to the bottom of the King killing, and partly to uncover what she believes is the tangled web of government lies, deception and cover-up -- if not outright involvement -- in King's murder.

Americans deserve to know the truth about King's death -- but there are two truths about the murder. The first is too painful for those who fervently believe that James Earl Ray was a Lee Harvey Oswald-type patsy, and that the government orchestrated King's killing. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that Ray was the triggerman. His fingerprints were on the alleged murder weapon. He was at the crime scene, and he confessed.

But at different times before his death, Ray gave conflicting and muddled accounts of his activities and whereabouts at the time of the murder. His protests of innocence and frame-ups sounded like a discredited man's desperate effort to save his conscience, grab media attention, and cash in on the notoriety of the case. It worked -- Ray's public trashing about the King murder sent conspiracy buffs stampeding to the barricades, shouting that the government killed King. And Ray's much-belated feigning of innocence earned credence when Coretta took the stand on his behalf at a civil trial in Memphis in 1999.

Ray's guilt, however, doesn't let the government off the hook. Though the verdict of history stands that Ray killed King, the other truth that the McKinney bill could be useful in is revealing what government agencies did or didn't know about the King killing. The McKinney bill could help pry open the files that the House Select Committee on Assassination that investigated King's murder ordered sealed for fifty years. That might answer many questions about the secret war the FBI waged against King from the late 1950s until his murder. The assault on King was more than FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover acting out his paranoid obsessions against King. It was a war against the black movement. Hoover decided that the cheap and dirty way to win that war was by discrediting the most respected and admired symbol of that movement.

Hoover assigned Assistant FBI director William Sullivan the dirty job of getting the goods on King. Sullivan branded King as the "most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation." In his book My Thirty Years in Hoover's FBI, Sullivan described the inner circle of men assigned to get King. The group was made up of special agents mainly drawn from the Washington and Atlanta FBI offices. Their job was to monitor all of King's activities. Much of their dirty tactics are well known. They deluged him with wiretaps, physical surveillance, poison-pen letters, threats, harassment, intimidation, and smear sexual leaks to the media, and even at the time of his murder, Hoover had more plans to intensify the spy campaign against King. Decades later, Sullivan still publicly defended the FBI's war against him, and made no apology for it.

We know only the barest of bare outline of what the FBI actually did toward King in his final days. The McKinney bill would help connect the dots in the FBI's murky onslaught against King.

Then there's the actual assassination investigation. FBI officials who directed the illegal spy campaign against King, and the FBI agent who played a major role in running the program in Atlanta, were also involved in every phase of the assassination investigation. That raises even more questions about the scope, or lack thereof, of the investigation.

The re-opening of the King assassination won't uncover any smoking gun proof that the government directly issued orders to kill King. Nonetheless, the McKinney bill should be enacted. At the very least, it could allay some of the lingering doubts and suspicions that government agencies didn't tell the complete truth about King's murder. However, even this won't absolve the FBI of its disgraceful, destructive, and illegal campaign against King. The climate of suspicion and hostility it helped nurture toward the civil rights movement made it possible for Ray to murder King. The public disclosure of that would help fulfill Coretta's wish to know what really happened to her husband.


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