|From the May-June 2000 issue (Vol. 7 No. 4)|
According to a Memphis jurys verdict on December 8,1999, in the wrongful death lawsuit of the King family versus Loyd Jowers "and other unknown co-conspirators," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a conspiracy that included agencies of his own government. Almost 32 years after Kings murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, a court extended the circle of responsibility for the assassination beyond the late scapegoat James Earl Ray to the United States government.
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 trials 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. Simpsons trial was the trial of the century. Clintons trial was the trial of the century. But this is the trial of the century, and whos 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 governments 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.
In the complaint filed by the King family, "King versus Jowers and Other Unknown Co-Conspirators," the only named defendant, Loyd Jowers, was never their primary concern. As soon became evident in court, the real defendants were the anonymous co-conspirators who stood in the shadows behind Jowers, the former owner of a Memphis bar and grill. The Kings and Pepper were in effect charging U.S. intelligence agencies particularly the FBI and Army intelligence with organizing, subcontracting, and covering up the assassination. Such a charge guarantees almost insuperable obstacles to its being argued in a court within the United States. Judicially it is an unwelcome beast.
Many qualifiers have been attached to the verdict in the King case. It came not in criminal court but in civil court, where the standards of evidence are much lower than in criminal court. (For example, the plaintiffs used unsworn testimony made on audiotapes and videotapes.) Furthermore, the King family as plaintiffs and Jowers as defendant agreed ahead of time on much of the evidence.
But these observations are not entirely to the point. Because of the governments "sovereign immunity," it is not possible to put a U.S. intelligence agency in the dock of a U.S. criminal court. Such a step would require authorization by the federal government, which is not likely to indict itself. Thanks to the conjunction of a civil court, an independent judge with a sense of history, and a courageous family and lawyer, a spiritual breakthrough to an unspeakable truth occurred in Memphis. It allowed at least a few people (and hopefully many more through them) to see the forces behind Kings martyrdom and to feel the responsibility we all share for it through our government. In the end, twelve jurors, six black and six white, said to everyone willing to hear: guilty as charged.
We can also thank the unlikely figure of Loyd Jowers for providing a way into that truth.
Loyd Jowers: When the frail, 73-year-old Jowers became ill after three days in court, Judge Swearengen excused him. Jowers did not testify and said through his attorney, Lewis Garrison, that he would plead the Fifth Amendment if subpoenaed. His discretion was too late. In 1993 against the advice of Garrison, Jowers had gone public. Prompted by William Peppers progress as James Earl Rays attorney in uncovering Jowerss role in the assassination, Jowers told his story to Sam Donaldson on Prime Time Live. He said he had been asked to help in the murder of King and was told there would be a decoy (Ray) in the plot. He was also told that the police "wouldnt be there that night."
In that interview, the transcript of which was read to the jury in the Memphis courtroom, Jowers said the man who asked him to help in the murder was a Mafia-connected produce dealer named Frank Liberto. Liberto, now deceased, had a courier deliver $l00,000 for Jowers to hold at his restaurant, Jims Grill, the back door of which opened onto the dense bushes across from the Lorraine Motel. Jowers said he was visited the day before the murder by a man named Raul, who brought a rifle in a box.
As Mike Vinson reported in the March-April Probe, other witnesses testified to their knowledge of Libertos involvement in Kings slaying. Store-owner John McFerren said he arrived around 5:l5 pm, April 4, 1968, for a produce pick-up at Frank Libertos warehouse in Memphis. (King would be shot at 6:0l pm.) When he approached the warehouse office, McFerren overheard Liberto on the phone inside saying, "Shoot the son-of-a-bitch on the balcony."
Café-owner Lavada Addison, a friend of Libertos in the late 1970s, testified that Liberto had told her he "had Martin Luther King killed." Addisons son, Nathan Whitlock, said when he learned of this conversation he asked Liberto point-blank if he had killed King.
"[Liberto] said, I didnt kill the nigger but I had it done. I said, What about that other son-of-a-bitch taking credit for it? He says, Ahh, he wasnt nothing but a troublemaker from Missouri. He was a front man a setup man."
The jury also heard a tape recording of a two-hour-long confession Jowers made at a fall 1998 meeting with Martin Luther Kings son Dexter and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young. On the tape Jowers says that meetings to plan the assassination occurred at Jims Grill. He said the planners included undercover Memphis Police Department officer Marrell McCollough (who now works for the Central Intelligence Agency, and who is referenced in the trial transcript as Merrell McCullough), MPD Lieutentant Earl Clark (who died in 1987), a third police officer, and two men Jowers did not know but thought were federal agents.
Young, who witnessed the assassination, can be heard on the tape identifying McCollough as the man kneeling beside Kings body on the balcony in a famous photograph. According to witness Colby Vernon Smith, McCollough had infiltrated a Memphis community organizing group, the Invaders, which was working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In his trial testimony Young said the MPD intelligence agent was "the guy who ran up [the balcony stairs] with us to see Martin."
Jowers says on the tape that right after the shot was fired he received a smoking rifle at the rear door of Jims Grill from Clark. He broke the rifle down into two pieces and wrapped it in a tablecloth. Raul picked it up the next day. Jowers said he didnt actually see who fired the shot that killed King, but thought it was Clark, the MPDs best marksman.
Young testified that his impression from the 1998 meeting was that the aging, ailing Jowers "wanted to get right with God before he died, wanted to confess it and be free of it." Jowers denied, however, that he knew the plots purpose was to kill King a claim that seemed implausible to Dexter King and Young. Jowers has continued to fear jail, and he had directed Garrison to defend him on the grounds that he didnt know the target of the plot was King. But his interview with Donaldson suggests he was not naïve on this point.
Loyd Jowerss story opened the door to testimony that explored the systemic nature of the murder in seven other basic areas: l) background to the assassination; 2) local conspiracy; 3) the crime scene; 4) the rifle; 5) Raul; 6) broader conspiracy; 7) cover-up.
1) Background to the assassination: James Lawson, Kings friend and an organizer with SCLC, testified that Kings stands on Vietnam and the Poor Peoples Campaign had created enemies in Washington. He said Kings speech at New Yorks Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, which condemned the Vietnam War and identified the U.S. government as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," provoked intense hostility in the White House and FBI.
Hatred and fear of King deepened, Lawson said, in response to his plan to hold the Poor Peoples Campaign in Washington, D.C. King wanted to shut down the nations capital in the spring of 1968 through massive civil disobedience until the government agreed to abolish poverty. King saw the Memphis sanitation workers strike as the beginning of a nonviolent revolution that would redistribute income.
"I have no doubt," Lawson said, "that the government viewed all this seriously enough to plan his assassination."
Coretta Scott King testified that her husband had to return to Memphis in early April 1968 because of a violent demonstration there for which he had been blamed. Moments after King upon arriving in Memphis joined the sanitation workers march there on March 28, 1968, the scene turned violent subverted by government provocateurs, Lawson said. Thus King had to return to Memphis on April 3 and prepare for a truly nonviolent march, Mrs. King said, to prove SCLC could still carry out a nonviolent campaign in Washington.
2) Local conspiracy: On the night of April 3, 1968, Floyd E. Newsum, a black firefighter and civil rights activist, heard Kings "Ive Been to the Mountain Top" speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. On his return home, Newsum returned a phone call from his lieutenant and was told he had been temporarily transferred, effective April 4, from Fire Station 2, located across the street from the Lorraine Motel, to Fire Station 3l. Newsum testified that he was not needed at the new station. However, he was needed at his old station because his departure left it "out of service unless somebody else was detailed to my company in my stead." After making many queries, Newsum was eventually told he had been transferred by request of the police department.
The only other black firefighter at Fire Station 2, Norvell E. Wallace, testified that he, too, received orders from his superior officer on the night of April 3 for a temporary transfer to a fire station far removed from the Lorraine Motel. He was later told vaguely that he had been threatened.
Wallace guessed it was because "I was putting out fires," he told the jury with a smile. Asked if he ever received a satisfactory explanation for his transfer Wallace answered, "No. Never did. Not to this day."
The rest of this article can be found in The Assassinations, edited by Jim DiEugenio and Lisa Pease.
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