The FBI Has Some Explaining to Do About King's Murder
"Dangerous," "evil," "colossal fraud," were the choice terms that then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and other top FBI officials routinely spit out about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They didn't stop at name calling. They talked ominously of "neutralizing" him as an effective leader. And even more ominously they sent him a letter flatly saying "King you are done."
The FBI's name calling, paranoid harassment and violent threats brutally and disgustingly captured the secret and patently illegal wiretapping of King. This is not smoking gun proof that the FBI had a hand in King's murder. The tapes do raise the legitimate question: What did the FBI know and when did it know about possible attempts on King's life?
Americans certainly deserve to know the whole truth about the killing of King. But there are two truths about the murder. The first is 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 still overwhelming that Ray was the triggerman. His fingerprints were on the alleged murder weapon. He was at the crime scene, and he confessed. At different times before his death, Ray gave conflicting, confusing 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 salve his conscience, grab media attention, and cash in on the notoriety of the case. It worked. Ray's public trashing about on the King murder sent conspiracy buffs stampeding to the barricades shouting that the government killed King. The King family gave Ray's much belated feigning of innocence credence when Coretta Scott King took the stand on his behalf at a civil trial in Memphis in 1999.
The verdict of history stands that Ray killed King. But Ray's guilt, however, doesn't let the government off the hook, as the FBI wiretaps disgracefully show. Unfortunately, the other truth is that the House Select Committee on Assassination that investigated King's murder ordered the files sealed for fifty years. They are still sealed. So we don't really know what the FBI did or didn't do in the run-up to King's murder. The files just might answer many questions about the secret war the FBI waged against King from the late 1950's to his murder.
The assault on King was more than Hoover's 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 bare outline of what the FBI actually did to King in his final days. There are still a lot of dots that beg to be connected 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 solid evidence that the government had a deeper hand in King's death than is so far known. But full disclosure by government agencies involved in the investigation of King's assassination at the very least 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 shameful, 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. Forty years later, the FBI wiretaps still tell the sordid tale of a government agency out to destroy King at any and all costs.