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Conspiracy theories persist 40 years after King's death
Scripps Howard News Service


April 01, 2008

WASHINGTON -- Thirty years after the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded its exhaustive review of the shooting of Martin Luther King, its chairman, Louis Stokes, stands by its findings.

"No one to my knowledge has come forth with any factual evidence of any kind that would in any way controvert the findings of our committee," Stokes, now a retired lawyer in both Cleveland and Washington, said in a recent interview with The Memphis (Tenn.) Commercial Appeal.

"I don't know of one single piece of evidence that anyone has brought forth that has tainted our findings."

But some have looked at the evidence and drawn different conclusions.

The committee found it "ironic" that the FBI's ongoing surveillance and harassment campaign against King helped prove that the bureau did not have prior knowledge of his 1968 assassination in Memphis.

It found that James Earl Ray did not harbor "deep-seated racial animosity" sufficient to motivate the killing, but that he might have been lured by a potential financial reward.

And it found evidence that others -- including a now-dead lawyer in St. Louis -- were offering a payoff to kill King, which proved there was a conspiracy, and that Ray, a Missouri prison escapee, might have been aware of it.

But it also determined that Ray was the lone assassin and that neither the FBI nor the Memphis police were complicit in the killing. It made that finding despite concluding that indefensibly "substandard" Memphis police work may have aided Ray's escape.

Perhaps most notably, the committee found plausible a strange explanation for the removal of a black Memphis police detective from his post outside the Lorraine Motel just hours before the killing.

Some say the committee ignored evidence or drew the wrong conclusions. John Judge, founder of the Coalition on Political Assassinations and one who believes, like some in King's family, that Ray did not pull the trigger, scoffs at the panel's work.

"Look at what they call conclusions," said Judge. "They can't determine anything except that Ray did it."

Others, like Ray lawyer William F. Pepper, in his 2003 book, "An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King," suggest the committee overlooked evidence it collected that "frequently conflicts with conclusions of the (committee's) report itself."

Ray pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years but recanted and spent the remainder of his life trying to clear his name. He died in prison in 1998.

The congressional investigation got off to a rocky start and its first two chairmen resigned before Stokes, then a Democratic congressman from Ohio, got the nod from then-House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. He said there was "a lot of politicking to overcome the general feeling that the committee was going to be an embarrassment and the best thing to do was to shut it down."

Stokes knew King before the assassination. King had organized the Cleveland voter registration drive that led to Stokes' brother, Carl, becoming the first black mayor of a major U.S. city in November 1967. Stokes and King waited in Carl Stokes' campaign headquarters for results to come in that night. Despite that intimacy, Stokes said he was determined to approach the investigation without preconceived views.

"He was a very cunning criminal," Stokes recalled of his cross-examination of Ray. "He was someone who was going to try by any means to keep from admitting that he had killed Dr. King."

The committee's investigative files were sealed for 50 years.

Its investigation looked into the possibility that the FBI and the Memphis Police Department were involved in the assassination -- but concluded they were not.

It took testimony both in closed and open session on the issue of the removal of Ed Redditt, a black Memphis police detective, from an observation post next to the Lorraine Motel on April 4, just two hours before the assassination. It also looked into the transfer of two black firemen from the nearby firehouse.

Redditt maintained surveillance of the motel on April 3 and 4 until he was called back to headquarters to meet with then-Police Chief James McDonald, Fire Chief Frank C. Holloman and an unidentified Secret Service official. They placed him under police protection because of reports that Redditt was the target of death threats.

Redditt, now 77 and a track coach in Somerville, Tenn., has always been suspicious about his removal from the scene. In a recent interview, Redditt said the suggestion that he was unsympathetic to the striking sanitation workers was part of a strategy to discredit him.

And when he finally returned to work, he said: "Nobody said one earthly thing about a contract (killing)."

The committee report summarized its Redditt investigation with the conclusion that he'd been "removed because his superior perceived real danger to his safety." It added: "The committee found that Redditt's removal was not part of any plot to facilitate the assassination of Dr. King."

The post-assassination operation of the Memphis Police Department also came under review. The department was criticized for its "inexcusable" failure to have a contingency plan for trouble in or near the Lorraine Motel, for an "indefensible" failure to post an all-points bulletin for the suspected white Mustang get-away car and for failure to set up road-blocks on major arteries leading out of Memphis.

"Nevertheless, the committee found no evidence that the substandard performance of the Memphis police in the aftermath of the assassination was part of a conspiracy to facilitate the assassination of Dr. King or the escape from Memphis of James Earl Ray," the final report said.


Contact Bartholomew Sullivan of The Commercial Appeal
in Memphis, Tenn. at sullivanb(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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