The Common Good
May-June 1997

Conspiracies to Kill

by Bob Hulteen | May-June 1997

Strategies to end the civil rights movement in the '60.

Conspiracy is the hot word of the ’90s. With The X-Files the most compelling of TV fare, and with the current trial about the real-life terror created in the Oklahoma City bombing by conspiracy-prone militiamen, Americans are seeing conspiracies everywhere. (It used to be a mark of distinction to be a conspiracy theorist; now it’s trendy.) But just because everyone’s milking a pet conspiracy doesn’t mean some aren’t true.

The linking of the assassinations of public persons, albeit not a new theory, is receiving renewed attention. The family of Martin Luther King Jr. has requested that the court reopen the case of James Earl Ray, the man convicted of King’s assassination. Dexter King, son of the slain civil rights leader, recently met with Ray in the hope of gleaning any new information about his father’s murder. After the meeting, the younger King declared his belief that Ray is innocent.

Such an argument has long been made by Ray’s attorney, William F. Pepper. An associate of Martin King, Pepper penned Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King in 1995 precisely to push the case in this direction.

In this book Pepper argues that Ray was a stooge of government forces who conspired with organized crime and business interests to kill King. Pepper points to a number of disturbing questions about the case, while also demonstrating the self-interest of some government officials, notably FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, in the elimination of King and disruption of the civil rights movement.

How did this small-time bank robber, who had recently escaped from a Missouri prison, single-handedly work his way from Atlanta to England, with stops in Canada and Portugal? What resources did this man who rented a boarding-house room across from the Lorraine Motel where King was killed have to evade law enforcement officials for so long?

So convincing are some of the factual arguments that Jesse Jackson wrote the foreword to Ray’s book, in which Ray proclaims his innocence. Ralph Abernathy, the man who succeeded King as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and James Lawson, the pastor who coordinated the Memphis garbage workers’ strike that brought King to Memphis, both believe that Ray was set up in a government conspiracy. An appeals court is considering a request by Pepper to allow experts to examine a gun found at the scene with Ray’s fingerprints on it and bullet fragments from the crime scene with technology not available at the time of the trial.

Although the writing is often laborious to read, and some of the connections are a stretch even for a true-believer like me, the book offers a coherent perspective—and one that is all-too-believable—of King’s assassination. This book forces us to reconsider racial politics in America by demonstrating something we know at an intuitive level: Personal biases and social structures supported a racialist mentality at the highest positions of economic and political power. While much of the theorizing remains questionable, the FBI’s animosity toward those who were pushing for structural change is demonstrable. The social context—the perceived threat to the social order of a movement that linked poverty, racism, and militarism—makes plausible the central argument of this book.

Orders to Kill is currently out of print, but discussions are under way for a paperback edition. The recent interest in this story created by the actions of the King family will undoubtedly grow.

THE RECENT FILM Ghosts of Mississippi tackles a similar topic—the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi civil rights worker who was gunned down in his driveway by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith. De La Beckwith was indicted for the murder, but hung juries twice let him go free for this 1963 murder, despite strong circumstantial evidence and his own obvious arrogance at the act that is his claim to fame.

Director Rob Reiner had long wanted to produce a movie that dealt with the themes and issues of the civil rights struggle. He questioned, however, the contribution he, as a white man, could make to the genre of civil rights films. He decided that he could legitimately tell the stories of De La Beckwith (played by James Woods) and the white assistant district attorney Bobby DeLaughter (played by Alec Baldwin). He points to the "ghosts" that still haunt so many people in Mississippi, and that keep racism alive.

Unfortunately the movie is passionless. Every potential surge toward suspense is deflated as Reiner allows lectures to replace drama. Whoopi Goldberg is uninspiring in her portrayal of the ever-vigilant Myrlie Evers, wife of Medgar and recent chair of the NAACP. Alec Baldwin is listless as DeLaughter. Only Woods offers intensity—the intensity that true hatred and bigotry can breed—in his frightening and unrepentant portrayal of De La Beckwith.

Ghosts of Mississippi will soon be released on video. For those who know the story, the movie will not add much; if you don’t know about Medgar Evers, this film might be a good place to start (but not end) the study.

Ghosts of Mississippi. Directed by Rob Reiner. Released by Castle Rock. 1997

Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King. By William F. Pepper. Carroll and Graf Publishers. 1995.

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