The Buried Truths of Martin and Malcolm
With the 32nd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. coming up on April 4, I wanted to take a little time to look back at what we know and what we don’t know about what happened to the civil rights movement.
The political and social climates at home and abroad were quite different in the sixties than they are today. Social movements, while producing great leaders who sought to fight government injustice, also greatly distressed the powers that be. The United States government turned to the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI, so successful at battling World War II sabotage, designed a counter-intelligence program which recent Freedom of Information Act requests have begun to reveal was intended to destabilize “radical” groups, mostly civil-rights organizations. By late 1967, the key target of the FBI’s southern offices was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It was also during this time that politically motivated assassinations began to proliferate. I don’t claim that government was responsible, but thanks to the lack of investigation and the FBI’s covering up of evidence, we may never know the entire truth behind any of these murders. It was this climate of governmental interference and open hostility that surrounds the killings, particularly, of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
It is no coincidence that Martin and Malcolm were killed when they were. Both men were killed within one year of making a profound extension of their goals and their personal ideologies -- Dr. King’s civil-rights views led him to openly oppose the war in Vietnam; Malcolm X’s increased focus on human rights discredited the American government in favor of the United Nations and the World Court.
There is far more than speculation and circumstance, however, that raises questions as to what really happened to these leaders. Take King’s case first. Two days before King’s fateful arrival in Memphis, a man claiming to be an advance man for King switched his hotel reservation to a room that had a balcony exposed to sniper fire. No one in the King organization matched this man’s description. At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, King fell, mortally wounded from a single bullet fired from a high-power rifle. As soon as he was shot, Marrell McCullough was the first to point to the window of Bessie Brewer’s boarding house, from where James Earl Ray allegedly shot King. It turns out that McCullough had been in the military police, and was hired by the 111th Military Intelligence Group in 1967. At the time of King’s death he was working for the Memphis Police department’s Intelligence Division, but still reporting directly to the 111th.
This is significant, considering the mass of evidence suggesting that there was in fact another shooter. A former FBI ballistics expert testified that not even the most skilled gunman could have made Ray’s shot. Adding to that, a reporter uncovered an unpublished Associated Press photograph showing tree branches blocking the view from the window Ray allegedly used. Those trees were ordered cut down by the City of Memphis shortly after the assassination. In addition, witnesses across the street report having heard a shot coming from ground level, and only one witness, Charles Q. Stevens, has ever identified Ray as the man seen running from the room after the shooting. Stevens did not make this identification for several days, not until after the FBI paid off more than $30,000 in his bar tabs. Also, Stevens had been passed out drunk on the couch at the time of the murder; two other witnesses, neither of whom was drunk at the time, said that Ray was not the man seen running from the room.
Shortly thereafter, one of the witnesses was illegally committed to a mental institution, and the Memphis prosecutors removed her records from the hospital. The gun Ray was supposed to have used was found neatly bundled up next door to the boarding house less than two minutes after the shot that killed Dr. King. The fingerprint found on the gun was not identified for more than two weeks. The bullet that killed Dr. King has, in fact, never been conclusively linked to the rifle.
Shortly before his murder, King’s security detail was reduced from eight officers to just two, on orders of Frank Holloman, Public Safety director of the Memphis police department. He was a retired 25 year veteran of the FBI, who had been the head of the Memphis Field office from 1959 to 1964, and had previously been in charge of running the office of J. Edgar Hoover -- the same Hoover that had called King the most dangerous man in America, and a few months before the assassination had distributed an internal memo calling for King’s removal from the national scene. Finally, the police insisted on waiting for a city ambulance and would not allow the private ambulance that had arrived earlier to transport Dr. King to the hospital.
Now, all of this is circumstantial and could have been one giant set of coincidences. So the next logical question is who is to blame for our not knowing the whole truth. First we must look to the FBI investigation -- which was headed by Cartha Deloach, the very man who had been in charge of the FBI’s surveillance of Dr. King.
Next we have Ray’s own lawyers. Ray’s first lawyer viewed the civil rights movement as a communist conspiracy. His second lawyer accepted the rights to any books about Ray in exchange for legal fees. Ray’s third lawyer was the head of the extremist National States Rights party. It seems painfully obvious that none of these men had any interest in the truth being brought out about King’s assassination.
Finally, we have the House Select Committee on Assassinations. When the HSCA first convened it was headed by Richard Sprague. Early in the investigation, Sprague ordered all relevant intelligence files be turned over to the committee, and that lie detectors be used when taking testimony from intelligence sources. Sprague was immediately removed by Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez and was escorted by an armed guard from his office. The new lead council, G. Robert Blakey, was far more lenient in his demands on the intelligence community, and the committee engaged in a tightly controlled investigation, the evidence from which was immediately sealed for fifty years, and will therefore not be seen until the year 2029. But recently, the Tennessee sate prosecutor Bill Gibbons told an Associated Press reporter that he wants Congress to unseal the records of the HSCA. Despite the bias of the investigation, the information it gathered still remains one of the best hopes for uncovering the truth.
The assassination of Malcolm X occurred just over three years prior to that of Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm’s human-rights trip to Africa and the Near East had made him a much larger threat to the United States government than he had ever been before. After the meeting of the Organization of African Unity, at which he was the only American allowed to be heard, the State Department and the Justice Department began investigating his activities. In fact, his activities were of such concern to the government that CIA director Richard Helms instructed his agents to do everything they could do to “monitor” the activities of Malcolm X. I don’t think it takes much to pass that through the spy-speak decoder ring, especially when you realize that Malcolm X is then mysteriously poisoned during his trip to Egypt and barely leaves the country alive.
Malcolm X’s home was firebombed; not only was the perpetrator never caught, but the police actually blamed Malcolm and claimed he firebombed his own house to make it look as if he was being targeted by someone. In fact, Malcolm had been targeted for heavy surveillance -- one of his own bodyguards was actually an undercover agent for BOSSI, New York City’s organized crime and anti-Communist unit. BOSSI was being pressured by the FBI to infiltrate the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which was set up by Malcolm X after he broke with the Nation of Islam.
It is this undercover cop that is often seen in the photographs giving “CPR” to Malcolm X, which, as any first-year medical student will tell you, is the worst thing you can do for a person with as many massive chest wounds as Malcolm suffered. It is also worth noting that the treasurer of the Nation of Islam at this time, James Ali, was a very high-placed informant for the FBI. Interestingly, this fact was first discovered by an author who later died when the brakes on his car failed while he was driving to a studio where he was set to begin shooting a film documenting the conspiracy surrounding Malcolm X’s assassination.
Ali, openly hostile to Malcolm X, was seen at a rehearsal speech given by Malcolm just days before he was killed -- at which a scuffle broke out, similar to the one that would break out on February 21, 1965, distracting the crowd just long enough for two men to walk up and shoot Malcolm X at point blank range. Strangely enough, all of the other speakers that night had canceled at the last moment, leaving Malcolm to carry the evening. It seems clear that nothing may have been able to save him, but Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, one of the finest medical institutions in the city, did not respond to the request for help despite being right across the street from where Malcolm was killed. In the end, Malcolm’s own aides had to go across the street, bring over a stretcher, and then wheel him back over before they received any help at all.
As a final footnote, one of Malcolm’s top aides went to the FBI about ten days after the assassination and told them that he felt there was a larger conspiracy, incorporating elements of the U.S. government, involved in Malcolm’s death. He was found dead a few days later at the age of 32 in his Boston apartment. Initially the death was classified a suicide, then it was changed to a drug overdose, and finally it was ruled natural causes.
The brief treatment I have written raises many disturbing questions that have yet to be answered. There are numerous press releases from prosecutors and congressmen addressing some of these issues, but without a competent, all-encompassing, impartial investigation, the truth will forever be hidden from us. And as much as these two men -- and all the other leaders, men and women alike, that I have failed to mention -- meant to this country, it is a national shame that we have let the truth remain buried as long as we have.
Brice Smith is a graduate student in the Department of Physics.