This article was originally published January 20, 2014.
Though the United States government has wrapped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s legacy in the American flag, waving his words to symbolize racial harmony and patriotic solidarity even as institutionalized White supremacy remains embedded in policies detrimental to the very Black community he tirelessly strived to uplift, very little is spoken of the fact that a Memphis jury found the United States government guilty of conspiring to assassinate Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.
After four weeks of testimony and over 70 witnesses in a civil trial in Memphis, Tennessee, twelve jurors reached a swift unanimous verdict on December 8, 1999 that Dr. King was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy, the NY Times reported at the time.
The King family, who filed the civil suit, was awarded $100. They donated the minuscule amount to charity.
Loyd Jowers, owner of Jim’s Grill, which was close to the Lorraine Motel, claimed that the shot which killed Dr. King was fired from behind his restaurant, and that local, state and federal U.S government agencies, and the Mafia, were all involved. James Earl Ray, who pleaded guilty to assassinating King, was renting a room above Jower’s establishment and was allegedly an unwitting scapegoat.
The restaurant owner named Memphis Police Department Officer, Lt. Earl Clark as Dr. King’s assassin, according to a press conference transcript. A claim that would later be called into question along with other shocking details.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, which painstakingly attempted to dismantle Jowers’ claims and the mountain of evidence presented in the Memphis trial, Jowers insisted that “…a Memphis produce dealer, who was involved with the Mafia, gave [Jowers] $100,000 to hire an assassin and assured him that the police would not be at the scene of the shooting. Jowers also reported that he hired a hit man to shoot Dr. King from behind Jim’s Grill and received the murder weapon prior to the killing from someone with a name sounding like Raoul. Jowers further maintained that [James Earl] Ray did not shoot Dr. King and that he did not believe Ray knowingly participated in the conspiracy.”
King’s widow, Coretta Scott-King, expressed her gratitude to the jury and called on media to get the truth to the public:
There is abundant evidence of a major high level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. And the civil court’s unanimous verdict has validated our belief. I wholeheartedly applaud the verdict of the jury and I feel that justice has been well served in their deliberations. This verdict is not only a great victory for my family, but also a great victory for America. It is a great victory for truth itself. It is important to know that this was a SWIFT verdict, delivered after about an hour of jury deliberation. The jury was clearly convinced by the extensive evidence that was presented during the trial that, in addition to Mr. Jowers, the conspiracy of the Mafia, local, state and federal government agencies, were deeply involved in the assassination of my husband. The jury also affirmed overwhelming evidence that identified someone else, not James Earl Ray, as the shooter, and that Mr. Ray was set up to take the blame. I want to make it clear that my family has no interest in retribution. Instead, our sole concern has been that the full truth of the assassination has been revealed and adjudicated in a court of law. As we pursued this case, some wondered why we would spend the time and energy addressing such a painful part of the past. For both our family and the nation, the short answer is that we had to get involved because the system did not work. Those who are responsible for the assassination were not held to account for their involvement. This verdict, therefore, is a great victory for justice and truth. It has been a difficult and painful experience to revisit this tragedy, but we felt we had an obligation to do everything in our power to seek the truth. Not only for the peace of mind of our family but to also bring closure and healing to the nation. We have done what we can to reveal the truth, and we now urge you as members of the media, and we call upon elected officials, and other persons of influence to do what they can to share the revelation of this case to the widest possible audience.
“We can say that because of the evidence and information obtained in Memphis we believe that this case is over. This is a period in the chapter. We constantly hear reports, which trouble me, that this verdict creates more questions than answers. That is totally false. Anyone who sat in on almost four weeks of testimony, with over seventy witnesses, credible witnesses I might add, from several judges to other very credible witnesses, would know that the truth is here.”
“The question now is, “What will you do with that?” We as a family have done our part. We have carried this mantle for as long as we can carry it. We know what happened. It is on public record. The transcripts will be available; we will make them available on the Web at some point. Any serious researcher who wants to know what happened can find out.”
King’s other children, Martin Luther King III and Bernice King, also expressed relief at the verdict.
Author, political historian and theologian Jim Douglass said that the truth was in that Memphis courtroom in 1999, but barely anyone was there to meet it face-to-face:
I can hardly believe the fact that, apart from the courtroom participants, only Memphis TV reporter Wendell Stacy and I attended from beginning to end this historic three-and-one-half week trial. Because of journalistic neglect scarcely anyone else in this land of ours even knows what went on in it. After critical testimony was given in the trial’s second week before an almost empty gallery, Barbara Reis, U.S. correspondent for the Lisbon daily Publico who was there several days, turned to me and said, “Everything in the U.S. is the trial of the century. O.J. Simpson’s trial was the trial of the century. Clinton’s trial was the trial of the century. But this is the trial of the century, and who’s here?”
What I experienced in that courtroom ranged from inspiration at the courage of the Kings, their lawyer-investigator William F. Pepper, and the witnesses, to amazement at the government’s carefully interwoven plot to kill Dr. King. The seriousness with which U.S. intelligence agencies planned the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. speaks eloquently of the threat Kingian nonviolence represented to the powers that be in the spring of 1968.
As previously stated, the Justice Department methodically countered every shred of evidence presented in the trial, and many people laugh it off as mere conspiracy theory, but Douglass insists that is not surprising at all:
Thirty-two years after Memphis, we know that the government that now honors Dr. King with a national holiday also killed him. As will once again become evident when the Justice Department releases the findings of its “limited re-investigation” into King’s death, the government (as a footsoldier of corporate power) is continuing its cover-up – just as it continues to do in the closely related murders of John and Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X.
The intense irony in the U.S. Justice Department presenting a case to delegitimize a verdict reached in an American courtroom is not lost on anyone.
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