The shot fired off and it would not be long before 4,00 members of the National Guard were drafted into Memphis, Tennessee, where a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed to stave off an uprising. That night, and in the days that followed, more than 100 American cities erupted in riots.
In Washington DC, the metropolitan police force, the DC National Guard and Federal troops struggled for four days to quell the violence in what became the largest occupation of any American city since the Civil War. When the smoke settled, more than 6,100 citizens had been arrested, 1,097 were injured and 12 had been killed in the chaos.
The nation had lost its finest and most influential advocate of human rights. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead.
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The official story goes that King was murdered by a lone merciless assassin, James Earl Ray, in a symbolic act of hate that reinforced our country’s bitter racial conflicts. The story is continually told to us by our media and educational institutions. It is part of our collective national narrative. And, it’s entirely false.
Press play to listen to Calvin Sloan’s interview with William F. Pepper:
Press play to listen to Calvin Sloan’s interview with William F. Pepper:
The real history, uncovered by Dr. William F. Pepper, former attorney to the King family and to the now-deceased Ray, is much more sinister. When I spoke with Pepper on the eve of the 42nd anniversary of King’s death, he stated unequivocally that factions of the United States government were involved in the assassination and that “it was effectively a policy decision.”
That’s a hard pill to swallow. When it comes to American heroes, King is on par with such prominent figures as the founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like Gandhi, King has become a human rights icon of global significance. The notion that our government actively worked to end his life is so consequential, it would need to be authoritatively substantiated for us to even consider it, which is exactly what Dr. Pepper achieved with his quarter-century long investigation.
Pepper, who was a former associate of King in the anti-war movement, has written two books on the issue, “Orders to Kill” and “An Act of State,” the latter of which was recommended by Coretta Scott King, the widow of King, for “everyone who seeks the truth about King’s assassination.” In Pepper’s view, after speaking out on the war in Vietnam and refocusing his efforts on the Poor People’s Campaign, King “had just become too inconvenient a leader” for major institutions of the US government.
Pepper’s conclusion was adjudicated in the momentous, yet practically unknown, civil case King v. Jowers and Other Unknown Co-Conspirators of 1999, where Pepper represented the King family to place the official story on record. After 30 days and some 70 witness testimonies, the jury concluded that Loyd Jowers, whom Pepper described as a “small cog in the total process of assassination,” was guilty and that, more importantly, in the words of the verdict, “Yes – Others including governmental agencies were parties to this conspiracy as alleged by the defendant.”
This view has been supported by academics and government officials alike. Clayborne Carson, the director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers project at Stanford University, has declared that Pepper’s work “should be read by every serious student of King’s life and his tragic death.” Ramsey Clark, the former attorney general who served under President Lyndon B. Johnson during the time of the assassination has stated, “no one has done more than Dr. William F. Pepper to keep alive the quest for truth concerning the violent death of Martin Luther King.”
Forty-two years later, in an America where the recently dismissed Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair candidly stated to Congress this past February, “if we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that,” Pepper’s analysis could not be more relevant. Pepper provides us not only with historical revelation; he presents the social and economic context that fostered the murder, that capitalist drive for profit that repeatedly alters our history and continues to define the malfeasances of today:
Calvin Sloan: In the last years of his life, Dr. King participated in the anti-war movement, publicly labeling the US government the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” and furthermore, King had begun organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. How did these movements threaten state institutions?
William F. Pepper: They threatened the ruling forces of America directly.
In terms of the anti-war movement, had his opposition to the war been successful, it would have gone straight to the bottom lines of major American corporations involved in energy, oil and gas, as well as military contractors and indeed, the huge civilian contracting entities that were involved in doing things like reconstructing the Cam Rahn Bay area and port. So, in terms of the opposition of the war, he would have greatly affected the profits of those American corporations who were benefiting from the war.
In terms of the Poor People’s Campaign, that was going right to the heart of the social economic political structure in the United States. He planned on mobilizing millions of poor people and not just in a march – it is one thing for people to march and then go home after listening to a series of speeches; it is quite another thing to encamp in the nation’s capital. That was the way that he had projected the Poor People’s Campaign to culminate.
The risk of that massive group camping in Washington and visiting their congress people and being frustrated not getting the results that they wanted: that is, funds being put back into social programs; the risk the army saw was that that group was going to become out of control and that they would eventually become a serious, revolutionary threat.
So I think that that was very important. They were never going to allow him to bring that mass of humanity to Washington.
CS: Could you summarize the conclusions that you reached regarding the assassination of King?
WP: Martin was assassinated by forces in motion involving major institutions of the government of the United States as well as organized crime. He had just become too inconvenient a leader and so they decided to dispose of him. That is as straightforward as it could be.
CS: What was the significance of the King v. Jowers and Other Unknown Co-Conspirators trial?
WP: The significance was, for the first time, all of the evidence related to the assassination was put forward in a court of law under oath. The trial lasted 30 days and there were some 70 witnesses who testified and put evidence into the record.
I represented the King family and this was their final effort to establish the truth of what happened and how Martin King was assassinated. It is an interesting commentary on mainstream media that of course the trial is basically unknown and most Americans are not even aware that it was held. Every year about this time, CNN and other cable groups put forward documentaries that tend to support, in a most dishonest way, the official position that James Earl Ray was the lone assassin of Martin King, which I rejected after the first 10 years of my work on the case.
CS: Your client, James Earl Ray, was repeatedly denied his constitutional rights by the Tennessee courts. Do you believe the conspiracy, in its second phase of cover-up, extends into the judiciary as well?
WP: Yes. We struggled for ten years from 1988 to 1998, when James died, to try to get him a trial and we were unsuccessful. We came quite close, but then they removed the judge. Judge Joe Brown, I think, was on the verge of giving us that trial when they removed him from the bench and that pretty much sealed the fate of James in terms of not being able to ever have a full trial.
After he died in 1998, we decided to bring this civil action and put all the evidence we had gathered forward at that time.
CS: Do the omissions of the United States attorney general’s report implicate a federal obstruction of justice?
WP: I suppose one could say that. After the trial, they came in and attempted, through a rather slip-shod investigation, a very distorted one, attempted to repudiate, or just deny outright the credibility of witnesses like John McFarren, who had no reason at all to lie and who were simply telling what they knew, what they heard and what they saw. But the Justice Department investigation, conducted by the Civil Rights division, just elected not to believe them and therefore stuck with the old official story.
CS: Throughout your campaign, the mainstream media failed repeatedly to approach the case with any sense of objectivity. Why do you think this was the case? And how is the mainstream media structured to ensure that such journalistic shortcomings become standard practice?
WP: The mainstream media really, as the fourth estate, is a portion of the ruling apparatus in this republic – and elsewhere in the world, of course. The media is very important in terms of forming public opinion on controversial matters. It is committed to keeping the status quo to the extent that is possible.
Psychologically, it is believed in terms of the whole advertising industry, which underwrites much of the media, that people will not consume if they are anxious, or if they are losing confidence in their government, or if they see that things are not stable and secure.
So, when consumerism suffers, which is the lifeblood of capitalism, the whole system is in jeopardy.
One has to keep everything before the public on as even keel as possible and the mainstream media really does that. They are simply not going to go into areas of great controversy, regardless of what they believe.
Secondly, there has been a real cutback in investigative journalism both in the print and in the visual media.
So, I think it is a combination of factors. It is reinforced by the fact that most major media entities are controlled and owned by a very limited number of major world-class groups that have diversified interests.
CS: Could you explain the role that government publicists played throughout the process?
WP: They do the best they can to get their side of the story into the media in every way. In terms of people who are interviewed by the mainstream media, in terms of books that are published, they often behind the scenes support and encourage the publication of contrary views to those of someone like myself.
So, you have other books coming out that confuse the issues that are put out in a matter of years to provide the official line. They look for journalists and they look for writers that they can use.
I think Carl Bernstein told us at one point that there were over 400 intelligence operatives working in the American media across the board, everywhere from stringers to senior editorial figures. And so there is a great presence of government and governmental policy positions reflected in the mainstream media.
CS: You suggest in your book that “the concerns of Martin Luther King are alive and well and with us today as never before.” Can you explain why you believe that to be the case?
WP: They are worse. They are much worse today.
The disparity in wealth between the top 20 percent and lowest 20 percent of the citizens of this republic is far greater now than it was in King’s time. The whole system of oppression and violation of human rights, in terms of the conduct of official policy and operations since 1968, has grown enormously. We are a much more militaristic society today than we were 40 odd years ago. We are involved in two wars. The potential for a third is not far off and we have a number of military bases around the world.
So, we have certainly blossomed into a militaristic empire, which Martin saw back then and feared. And we’ve done this in the context of massive unemployment, increasing unemployment despite what the latest figures officially show and extraordinarily poor educational facilities that dumb down the population enormously.
With the consolidation of control of the media, we have fewer independent media sources now than we had back in 1968. So the situation is far worse.
The voice of Martin King is sorely missed. By assassinating him and then also Bob Kennedy a couple of months later, they effectively changed the whole structure and tone of government and public policy in the United States.
There is an important book out called “The Spirit Level,” by two English researchers and professors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket and it is one of the most important books in my view of our generation. It is a 30-year study of the effects of great wealth disparity in societies. They have looked at societies across the world and states within the United States and find that where there is the greater disparity between the top 20 percent and the lower 20 percent, in terms of distributions of wealth and assets in the society, that there is a higher level of antisocial incidents.
They have a whole set of criteria that affects the entire society, not just the poor, but the entire quality of life within the society itself. The United States is off the charts in terms of a negative rating with respect to the criteria they set up.
Now those criteria include things like teenage pregnancies, suicides, the amount of violence in the society, the proportions of citizens who are incarcerated, a whole range of criteria that are generally accepted as being antisocial indicators.
So I think the situation now is much worse. I think we have missed Martin over the course of the last 42 years and the results are plain to be seen.
CS: In the chapter “A Vision Unto Death and a Truth Beyond the Grave” of “An Act of State” you write:
“In order to fully comprehend the significance of the life, thought and work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the profound enormity of his loss, it is vital to consider his vision of the human condition – not only its vast potential, but the gradual dehumanization which he saw as the consequence of the dominance of western materialism.”
Do you believe we can reverse this process of dehumanization in the future?
WP: I think it will only be reversed when this system implodes and effectively disintegrates in its own negative energy. I do not know how far off that is.
Certainly, the seeds of the destruction of this empire are growing and are being fostered, nurtured within. It is only a question in my view of time. You cannot maintain the way this government operates for an extended period of time.
I say this government because it makes really no difference which party is in power. They deal with nuances and a variance on a theme, but both parties are the representatives of business, energy and militarism and neither one is really going to effect the kind of change that is required. They will tinker around the edges and try to make life a little better here and there, or a little more difficult here and there, depending on which policies are being pursued at the moment, but we are not going to have that kind of change until the system totally disintegrates.
I think it is inevitable, as it happens to all empires, but the timing is quite another matter. In the meantime there will be a lot of suffering.
CS: If Dr. King were alive today, what advice do you think he would give us?
WP: He would advocate today, as he advocated in ’67 and ’68, for a massive effort on the part of the population to turn the system around and to revisit all of the values that have been so carelessly thrown aside.
He would call for a Poor People’s Campaign to descend upon Washington, but in my view now, it would not just be a Poor People’s Campaign, it would be a Poor and Homeless People’s Campaign, because back in ’67 and ’68 we did not have the percentage of homeless people as a part of the population of abject poor that we have today. Homeless people are now a very important part of that constituency, so they must be considered a part of it now.
He would emphasize that there are really only two roads to power and that it is necessary to obtain power to really change the society. One way is by accumulating enormous wealth and through the use of that wealth. The other is through numbers.
You get power through wealth and numbers, either way can alter a system radically and that of course is what is required.