In general I am not a fan of conspiracy theories.  A good historian learns that, in regard to controversial events, the simplest explanation is the one most likely to be accurate.  I long ago took to heart Napoleon’s maxim that you should not blame on hidden machinations what can be more readily explained by incompetence.

Yet, as the ebullient Murray Rothbard used to point out, there really are conspiracies—history is full of them.  And in regard to political assassinations, the “lone nut” theory is often less plausible than conspiracy—especially when it is in the interest of the controllers of state power to obscure the truth.  They are always more inclined to favorable spin than to truth and justice.

Of course, obscuring the truth is now standard defense practice in criminal proceedings, so that there is always doubt in the most open-and-shut cases.  This is something that ideological federal judges devoid of common sense have made routine, although, unlike most criminal defendants, James Earl Ray never enjoyed the benefit of raising red herrings before his guilty verdict.  Deception is also the regular stock-in-trade of politicians, bureaucrats, and judges even before they are caught with their pants down and their pinkies in the till.

Contrary to general assumption, James Earl Ray was never convicted of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr., by the due process of examination of evidence and witnesses in open court before a jury.  In a four-minute court session, he pleaded guilty.  The transcript of this session was doctored to eliminate Ray’s hint that his plea might have been coerced.  John Emison has proved this conclusively and concluded that it could only have been done after the fact by someone in power.  Ray’s first lawyers were determined to go to trial with a not-guilty plea, and had even turned down an attractive plea bargain.  At the last minute they were replaced by an ethically challenged celebrity defense attorney with a close connection to Lyndon Johnson.  The author plausibly shows that instead of mounting his legendary defense skills, this lawyer coerced Ray into a guilty plea by a combination of carrot and stick.  It is relevant that preceding his plea Ray, at federal instigation, had been held for months in soul-breaking conditions of sleep deprivation and humiliation of the kind we have become familiar with in George W. Bush’s dealings with “enemy combatants,” but have not before or since seen applied to criminal defendants.

Two days after the guilty plea, Ray, after being transferred from the torture chamber to the state prison, repudiated it and asked for a new lawyer and a trial.  Repeatedly in subsequent years, Ray’s attorneys sought a trial.  Every time, judges considered only procedural issues, relied on the doctored court transcript, and denied the plea.  In two cases years apart, judges who seemed about to grant Ray a trial died of sudden heart attack (a standard tool of the CIA).  One of those judges had said that, in Ray’s guilty plea, “the actions of his attorneys made his defense a farce and a mockery of justice.”  Documents that gave some credit to Ray’s contention that others were involved disappeared from six different places—public offices, lawyer’s files, and private possession.  Others are under seal until 2029.  The U.S. government has labored mightily to prevent the question of guilt for King’s assassination from ever coming to open trial.

In fact, there is no eyewitness or physical evidence that places Ray where he could have taken the fatal shot.  The only evidence is a box dropped near the scene with some of Ray’s possessions, including the rifle he had purchased a few days before.  There is civilian and police testimony that the box, with the rifle conveniently protruding, was dropped and that Ray’s white Mustang was seen departing the scene before the killing shot.  This rifle was never conclusively tied to the fatal bullet by ballistics, while its scope had never been trued in and was three inches off.  The government has vigorously vetoed later attempts by Ray’s attorneys to conduct ballistics tests with newer and better methods.

The notorious 1978 House assassination investigation supported the official government line that King was killed by a violent Southern racist who had stalked him for some time.  The investigation failed to follow interesting leads and presented speculations as fact.  The evidence that Ray had previously stalked King is flimsy.  In fact, there is no evidence that Martin Luther King, Jr., was ever on Ray’s radar, that he disliked King any more than millions of other subelite white men, or that he was particularly “racist.”  He was not Southern but was born in Illinois and spent most of his life in the Midwest and California.

Ray was a ninth-grade dropout who had been dismissed from the Army as “inept,” a petty criminal, and a professional jailbird.  He did not have the skill for the hit on King—one shot from cover and a clean escape—but he was perfect for the role of manipulable and expendable patsy.  It is highly plausible that he was, as he claimed, a party in a conspiracy, manipulated by a man named “Raoul” who had given him money and instructions.  According to Ray, he purchased the rifle and gave it to Raoul, receiving further orders to check in at a given address in Memphis.  The room that Ray picked for himself had no view of the spot where King died, and he was unfamiliar with sophisticated weapons and no marksman.  He had no way of knowing the location of King’s room in the motel across the way or even of knowing for certain that King was staying there.

Raoul has been treated as a fabrication, but long before the assassination Ray had told his brothers that he was working for such a man and shared with them some of the funds he had been given.  For almost a year before the hit on King, Ray, a wanted escapee from the Missouri State Prison, was flush with more money than he had ever had.  He bought an almost new car, lived comfortably in California, and traveled to Mexico and Canada.  There has never been any explanation as to how he got the money other than payments from Raoul, who bears all the marks of a spy-agency handler.  After the assassination Ray traveled to Canada and across Europe, for two months evading a worldwide manhunt.  He had plenty of money, a Canadian passport, and used the names of four Canadian men who resembled him, information that he could never have obtained without official connivance.

I know John Emison.  He is an honorable man with a scientific background, a meticulous researcher and writer, and no sensationalist or publicity-seeker.  The publisher’s title is more sensationally marketable than his own choice.  (I also knew one of Ray’s attorneys, the late Jack Kershaw, who was also an honorable man, something that can never safely be said of any federal functionary.)  Emison has searched out every scrap of document and every available interviewee.  He does not claim to know the full truth about the King assassination.  He knows that Ray was a criminal little deserving of sympathy, did not always tell the truth, and that he was involved in the assassination, if only as an unwitting patsy.

The author thoroughly addresses these questions: Did Ray actually fire the fatal shot?  And did he act alone?  Any jury of good and true citizens allowed to see the evidence could not avoid more than a “reasonable doubt” about the official story.  And any honest rulers would have pursued truth and justice in his case.

If King’s death was not the act of a “Southern racist,” how is it to be explained?  Perhaps by considerations of “national security,” which were quite pertinent in 1968.  King was not on James Earl Ray’s radar, but he was most certainly on the radar of the FBI and of U.S. Army intelligence.  The FBI and Army intelligence had King under surveillance and had men on the scene when the assassination occurred.  The former had an informant in King’s entourage who gave almost hourly reports of his location and actions.  And the then-obscure Ray had a file in the CIA, in a small clandestine unit that answered to the notorious James Jesus Angleton.

Remember that King had lately swerved from “civil rights” to attacking the Vietnam War and American imperialism.  To dedicated Cold Warriors this constituted treason in wartime.  The agencies were well aware of King’s communist connections and his gross immorality.  (He had left a string of outraged husbands, mostly black, across the country, but nobody has suggested that as a possible reason for his murder.)  In judgments made in high places, King had the power to create domestic insurrection and to interrupt the orderly induction of cannon fodder for Vietnam.  We know that official “patriots” had a plan to murder Americans and blame the killings on Fidel Castro.  The removal of King was comparably a small matter for the federal government.  The world was already primed to blame it on Southern racists.  It was a bonus that the civil-rights movement got a genuine martyr before he could disgrace himself.

We will never know the whole truth about the Lincoln assassination.  Edwin Stanton, one of the most weird and despotic men ever to hold high office in the United States, made sure of that: John Wilkes Booth was conveniently killed rather than captured and questioned, pages are missing from his diary, and the “conspirators” were swiftly “tried” and executed by the Army.  Many strange doings have marked the Cold War era.  We do not know and never will know what government conspiracies may have been involved in the King assassination, the Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing, or the attack on September 11, 2001.  I do know that the low level of competence and integrity among the present American leadership makes vile, clandestine acts and cover-ups possible, without any doubt.


[The Martin Luther King Congressional Cover-Up: The Railroading of James Earl Ray, by John Avery Emison (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing) 304 pp., $26.95 paperback]