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Editor’s note: the following is a recounting of the last year of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life, how his path connected and became interwoven with Dr. William Francis Pepper and how in the half century from then to now, Dr. Pepper has carried forward the beacon illuminating reality with the power to transform this moment. Vincent Salandria describes historical truth as the polestar which guides humankind when we grope for an accurate diagnosis of a crisis. Dr. Pepper’s journey has greatly expanded the aperture through which the light of historical truth informs and can guide us if we choose to see it and allow it to come inside us.

50 Years Ago: Riverside Church and
MLK’s Final Year of Experiments With Truth
by David T. Ratcliffe
rat haus reality press
April 4, 2017

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at Riverside Church, NYC, April 4 1967

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King gave a paramount speech addressing the moral bankruptcy of the Vietnam war and the untenable costs to society of rampant U.S. militarism. Entering the final year of his life, the “Beyond Vietnam” address at New York City’s Riverside Church, moved Dr. King into a profoundly deeper exploration of experiments with truth akin to those that defined Mohandas Gandhi’s life.

Knowing beforehand he was progressing further across a one-way boundary, Martin King proceeded to grow far, far beyond the romanticized and frozen-in-1963 persona of a civil rights icon. In “King and the Cross,” Jim Douglass points out how, “With that speech that drew a prophetic line between real peace and our national security state, King went beyond his own security net as a civil rights leader [and] became a national security threat.”

What Dr. King expressed at Riverside Church was an unequivocal challenge to the relentless pursuit of control and exploitation of global resources by U.S. corporate governing interests cloaked in the façade of so-called national security. Then, as now, the phrase “U.S. interests,” evoked by elected officials, academic and commercial media writers and talking heads, is accurately translated: corporate aggrandizement, consolidation, and greed founded on lies and deception. As well as identifying “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government,” King pierced the veil of what was actually happening on the ground to the Vietnamese people under the curse of U.S. military forces. His genius for breaking down barriers and getting to the heart of a conflict gave him the ability to express the universality of human needs that are the same for all people in all lands.

And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1954—in 1945 rather—after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination and a government that had been established not by China—for whom the Vietnamese have no great love—but by clearly indigenous forces that included some communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.

The paths of Martin Luther King and William Francis Pepper were inextricably joined after King saw an article Pepper had written in the January 1967 edition of Ramparts magazine. At that time Pepper was executive director of the New Rochelle Commission on Human Rights, instructor in Political Science at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and director of that college’s Children’s Institute For Advanced Study and Research. On leave of absence in the spring of 1966 he spent six weeks in Vietnam as a correspondent accredited by the Military Assistance Command in that country, and by the government of Vietnam. His primary concern was the effects of the war on women and children, the role U.S. voluntary agencies performed and the work of the military in civil action.

Upon his return to the U.S. Pepper wrote a number of articles including the Ramparts essay titled “The Children of Vietnam.” Speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate on August 22, 1966, Senator Wayne Morse is quoted at the outset of the piece:

As Mr. Pepper makes clear, by far the majority of present refugees in South Vietnam have been rendered homeless by American military action, and by far the majority of hospital patients, especially children, are there due to injuries suffered from American military activities. The plight of these children and the huge burden they impose upon physical facilities has been almost totally ignored by the American people.

The article had a significant impact on Martin Luther King and more keenly focused his growing resolve to address the fundamental hypocrisy of making war in service to “U.S. interests” while mouthing hollow platitudes about peace and security. The text is every bit as searing as the photographs.

... despite growing efforts by American and South Vietnamese authorities to conceal the fact, it’s clear that there are hundreds of thousands of terribly injured children, with no hope for decent treatment on even a day-to-day basis, much less for the long months and years of restorative surgery needed to repair ten searing seconds of napalm.

When we hear about these burned children at all, they’re simply called “civilians,” and there’s no real way to tell how many of them are killed and injured every day. By putting together some of the figures that are available, however, we can get some idea of the shocking story.

Nearly two years ago, for instance—before the major escalation that began in early 1965—Hugh Campbell, former Canadian member of the International Control Commission in Vietnam, said that from 1961 through 1963, 160,000 Vietnamese civilians died in the war. This figure was borne out by officials in Saigon. According to conservative estimates, another 55,000 died during 1964 and 100,000 in each of the two escalated years since, or at least 415,000 civilians have been killed since 1961. But just who are these civilians?

In 1964, according to a UNESCO population study, 47.5 per cent of the people of Vietnam were under 16. Today, the figure is certainly over 50 per cent. Other United Nations statistics for Southeast Asia generally bear out this figure. Since the males over 16 are away fighting—on one side or the other—it’s clear that in the rural villages which bear the brunt of the napalm raids, at least 70 percent and probably more of the residents are children.

In other words, at least a quarter of a million of the children of Vietnam have been killed in the war.

If there are that many dead, using the military rule-of-thumb, there must be three times that many wounded—or at least a million child casualties since 1961....

Manufacturer Searle Spangler, American representative for the Swiss humanitarian agency Terre des Hommes describes what his agency has found to be the pattern when children are injured in remote villages: “If he’s badly ill or injured, of course, he simply won’t survive. There is no medical care available. Adults are likely to run into the forest, and he sometimes may be left to die. If they do try to get him to a hospital, the trip is agony—overland on bad roads, flies, dirt, disease, and the constant threat of interdiction by armed forces.” McLanahan says that virtually every injury that reaches the hospital at Da Nang is already complicated by serious infection—and describes doctors forced to stop during emergency surgical operations to kill flies with their hands.

Torn flesh, splintered bones, screaming agony are bad enough, But perhaps most heart-rending of all are the tiny faces and bodies scorched and seared by fire.

“The Children of Vietnam” is every bit as relevant today as it was in 1492 up thru the 1960s and beyond. Colonization, dispossession, and genocide forms the core of U.S. history, the very source of the country’s existence. What was done to the entire country of people in Vietnam by those “in charge” in the United States, continues in its contemporary form via drone-and-myriad-other techno killing machines—as well as old-fashioned methods—provided by the 56-plus-year-on further development and growth of the military industrial intelligence complex Eisenhower warned of. Innovation in technologies that maim and destroy life was and continues to be good for business.

Only U.S. forces used the hell-weapon of napalm in Vietnam. Pepper reminded us 50 years ago how creating living and dying hells in the world also has denied us our own humanity.

Napalm, and its more horrible companion, white phosphorus, liquidize young flesh and carve it into grotesque forms. The little figures are afterward often scarcely human in appearance, and one cannot be confronted with the monstrous effects of the burning without being totally shaken. Perhaps it was due to a previous lack of direct contact with war, but I never left the tiny victims without losing composure. The initial urge to reach out and soothe the hurt was restrained by the fear that the ash-like skin would crumble in my fingers....

“Napalm is an American product,” Mrs, Frumin says. “The tragedy that is befalling children in Vietnam is all the more our responsibility where children burned by napalm are concerned; only the United States is using this weapon, and it is fitting that we should provide the care for the mutilated children.”

The Committee [of Responsibility] backs up its position by citing such sources as a story in Chemical and Engineering News, last March, about a government contract for 100 million pounds of Napalm B, an “improved” product. The older forms of napalm, the article goes on to say, left “much to be desired, particularly in adhesion.”

This, of course, refers to the ability of the hateful substance to cling to the flesh of the hamlet dwellers on whom it is usually dropped, insuring a near perfect job of human destruction after prolonged agony. It is because American tax dollars are behind every phase of the process, from manufacture to delivery and use, that the citizens of the Committee of Responsibility (who include prominent doctors throughout the country) feel that American dollars might best be spent in relieving the suffering they buy....

Clearly, the destruction of a beautiful setting is exceeded only by the atrocity that we daily perpetuate upon those who carry within them the seeds of their culture’s survival. In doing this to them we have denied our own humanity, and descended more deeply than ever before as a nation, into the depths of barbarism.

It is a ghastly situation. And triply compounded is the ghastliness of napalm and phosphorus. Surely, if ever a group or children in the history of man, anywhere in the world, had a moral claim for their childhood, here they are. Every sickening, frightening scar is a silent cry to Americans to begin to restore that childhood for those whom we are compelled to call our own because of what has been done in our name.

When Martin King saw the article he met with Pepper who opened his files that went well beyond the photographs published in Ramparts. As Pepper recounted in 2003:

On the way to Cambridge to open Vietnam Summer, an anti-war project, we rode from Brown University (where he had delivered a sermon at the chapel there) and I continued the process of showing him these photographs and anecdotes of what I had seen when I was in the country. And he wept, he openly wept. He was so visibly shaken by what was happening that it was difficult for him to retain composure. And of course that passion came out in his speech on April 4th, 1967 at Riverside Church where he said that his native land had become the greatest purveyor of violence on the face of the earth. Quoting Thoreau he said we have come to a point where we use massively improved means to accomplish unimproved ends and what we should be doing is focusing on not just the neighborhood that we have created but making that old white neighborhood into a brotherhood. And we were going entirely in the opposite direction and this was what he was pledging to fight against.

We spoke very early in the morning following that Riverside address and he said, “Now you know they’re all going to turn against me. We’re going to lose money. SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] will lose all of its corporate contributions. All the major civil rights leaders are going to turn their back on me and all the major media will start to tarnish and to taint and to attack me. I will be called everything even up to and including a traitor.” So he said, “We must persevere and build a new coalition that can be effective in this course of peace and justice.“

That coalition came to be known as the National Conference for New Politics. It was an umbrella organization and it held its first—and last—convention in Chicago over the Labor Day weekend of 1967. It had 5,000 delegates, maybe the largest convention of people ever assembled in the history of this country, at the Palmer House in Chicago. They came from every walk of life, every socio-economic class, every racial group, every ethnic group. The purpose was to form this umbrella coalition that would effectively coordinate a massive third-party political campaign against the Johnson Administration and Johnson’s re-election; but at the same time develop grassroots organizing capabilities in the communities across America.

William F. Pepper with Martin Luther King, 1967 William F. Pepper with Martin Luther King
at the 1967 Labor Day NCNP Convention

It wasn’t to be—although it continued and struggled for the period of a year—but it wasn’t to be because of government’s wiliness and our naïveté. We never appreciated the extent to which government would go to undermine and undercut that kind of movement. They were responsible for the formation of a first black caucus. That black caucus was largely led by agente provocateurs who came from the Blackstone Rangers, organizations of that sort in Chicago. And they corralled each black delegate who came in and brought them into a room and formed this unity of all-black delegates and this commitment to vote as a block and introduce resolutions as a block.

We thought, many of us, that this was a good thing because this was typical and representative of a growing black awareness, particularly urban awareness. Although in the caucus they of course brought in rural black leaders as well. We felt this was healthy and there would be then this block that would vote and introduce the concerns of the black community across America. We didn’t know that it was government-induced and government-sponsored and government-paid for and that the leaders were gangsters. Blackstone Rangers would surface again and again in the course of the movement as capable of disrupting and causing havoc on behalf of their employers.

Martin delivered the keynote address at the convention. I introduced him and he delivered this address and the importance of this movement. As he was speaking a note was passed over my shoulder to me and I read it and it said, ‘Get him out of here after he finishes his speech or we will take him hostage and humiliate him before the world.’ They were so afraid that if this man stayed on for the substantive part of the convention that he, as a unifier, might bridge the differences and might overcome the provocation that was designed to disrupt the convention.

But I really felt at that point I had no choice. It was the first tip-off of what was going on. But still [I thought these were] just angry, hostile urban blacks, disaffected with non-violence and who had a different way of looking at things and different tactics that they wanted to follow. I didn’t think at all that it was (of course) officially inspired. So we did get Martin out of the Palmer House very quickly after his speech and they went on with the convention.

It was all downhill from there. They forced through resolutions that simply were so antagonistic to sections of the movement and engendered such hostility that all the money dried up for that noble cause. They were successful.

That being the case, nevertheless we struggled and worked in that last year of his life. I remember the last time I saw him alive (I think it was in late February). He had already started to become involved in the sanitation workers strike. In his own mind he thought that this was the basis for the encampment of the poor people in Washington and this was a good launching pad. He sympathized with all the goals of the sanitation workers in Memphis.

In later 1967 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation invited Dr. King to give a series of five lectures over their radio network on whatever he was most concerned with and to address these both to people in the U.S. as well as to the world at large. They were broadcast in November and December, 1967 and re-published posthumously in a second edition titled The Trumpet Of Conscience []. In the first talk, “Impasse In Race Relations,” Martin King expressed his vision first of a national and then a global nonviolent revolution against the increasing concentration of financial wealth in the U.S. corporate state and its encompassing military power.

Nonviolent protest must now mature to a new level to correspond to heightened black impatience and stiffened white resistance. This higher level is mass civil disobedience. There must be more than a statement to the larger society; there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point. That interruption must not, however, be clandestine or surreptitious. It is not necessary to invest it with guerrilla romanticism. It must be open and, above all, conducted by large masses without violence. If the jails are filled to thwart it, its meaning will become even clearer....

Mass civil disobedience as a new stage of struggle can transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force. To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it can be longer-lasting, costly to the larger society, but not wantonly destructive. Finally, it is a device of social action that is more difficult for the government to quell by superior force.

King wasn’t just talking about “dislocating the functioning of a city without destroying it.” He and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were preparing a very real plan announced on December 4, 1967 for a Poor People’s Campaign to commence on-the-ground in Washington D.C. in the spring of 1968:

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will lead waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C. next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all. We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule we embrace it, for that is what America’s poor now receive. If it means jail we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination. But we hope with growing confidence that our campaign in Washington will receive at first a sympathetic understanding across our nation followed by dramatic expansion of nonviolent demonstrations in Washington and simultaneous protests elsewhere. In short, we will be petitioning our government for specific reforms and we intend to build militant nonviolent actions until that government moves against poverty.

The purpose King envisioned was to dislocate the functioning of Washington until the federal government took the steps necessary to abolish poverty. The complement of the abolition of poverty was the abolition of war which was also a goal for the Poor People’s mobilization. In a SCLC staff retreat in Atlanta in January 1968 King said that what was important “after we get [to Washington], and stay a few days, [was to] call the peace movement in, and let them go on the other side of the Potomac and try to close down the Pentagon, if that can be done.” His overarching intent was summed up with the words, “I don’t know what Jesus had as his demands other than ‘repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.’ My demand in Washington is ‘repent, America.’” (David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Vintage Books, 1988, p. 593)

Quoting again from “King and the Cross”:

King was creating a crisis of conscience, in our national security state, that went deeper than dislocating the functioning of our capital, Washington, DC. King was dislocating the functioning of our ideology. The deepest spiritual and democratic values that the U.S. claimed it stood for King drew upon to confront our contradictions, from the jungles of Vietnam to our city ghettos. He insisted that we walk our talk. If not, our government should be nonviolently disrupted and shut down. He would do all he could to accomplish that end, regardless of the consequences to himself.

The consequences to Martin Luther King reached their lethal conclusion one year to the day after his address at Riverside Church when he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The friendship between Dr. King and William Pepper in the last year of King’s life would, in the ensuing five decades, cause William Pepper to carry on Martin King’s noble legacy and keep alive the transformative meaning of why King died and why it is as essential to understand this now as it was fifty years ago at the moment of the assassination.

After King’s death William Pepper had had his fill and walked away from political activity. In the 1970s he went to Boston College and received a J.D. law degree in 1975 and was admitted to the bar in 1977. In late 1977 Ralph Abernathy asked Pepper to go with him to interrogate James Earl Ray where Ray was in prison. Pepper was hesitant, saying he didn’t know anything about the case and at that point he didn’t want to know anything about it. Abernathy was insistent. Pepper’s response was that it would take him some time to get up to speed on the case. It did take time and in August of 1978 they went to see Ray in prison. Pepper put him through five hours of intensive interrogation which he recounts in his 2003 talk:

His lawyer at the time, Mark Lane, was there. A body language specialist from Harvard, [Dr.] Howie Berens came and he sat in a corner, just watched James’ movements as I put him really through a rather rigorous, painful time.

He was very different than we expected to find. He was shy, docile, soft-spoken, thoughtful and not at all the kind of racist figure that had been depicted in the media. Not at all. He knew very little about weapons, very clearly had virtually no skill at all with them. He was a petty thief and burglar, hold-up man. But he was totally incompetent in that....

After the interview ... Abernathy and I became convinced that he was not the shooter. We didn’t know what other role he might have played. But it was clear he was not the assassin of Martin Luther King. This guy couldn’t have done that. But he raised so many questions that I had never heard raised before, that had never been answered, that I decided I would begin to go into Memphis and talk to some people, become familiar with the terrain and the crime scene and see if I could get some answers to those questions....

Slowly things started to come together to the point where ten years on in this process I became convinced that not only was Ray was not the shooter but that he was an unknowing patsy. It was at that point in 1988 that I agreed to represent him.

From 1988 to 1991 Pepper sought to get Ray a new trial, losing all the way up through the Supreme Court. In 1992 Pepper had the idea to have a trial conducted on television. Sponsored by HBO in the U.S. and Thames Television in the U.K., it was called “The Trial of James Earl Ray”. Prepared in 1992, it began and was tried in 1993, the 25th anniversary year of the assassination of Martin King. It was a serious trial without any script and took the jury about seven hours to come back with a verdict of Not Guilty.

A beneficial result of the trial was that it brought to the fore witnesses and information that had not been possible to get before that. Four witnesses would have caused the indictment of a man named Loyd Jowers who owned a café on the ground floor of the rooming house where the shot supposedly had been fired from the bathroom window. Jowers was one of the first people Pepper had talked to back in 1978.

Memphis Commercial Appeal: “Army feared King, secretly watched him” March 21, 1993

On Sunday March 21, 1993 (after the trial was over) a front-page article was published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal with the title, “Army feared King, secretly watched him.” The author a was former naval intelligence operative named Steve Tompkins, who at one point had also been an assistant to the governor of Tennessee. He had conducted a 16-month investigation dealing with the infiltration of the civil rights movement and black leaders throughout the U.S. by military intelligence going back to the second decade of the 20th century. It was to have been the first of eight installments. Instead, the Sunday paper edition contained the very lengthy page one article centering on Martin Luther King as well as three related articles also written by Tompkins:

  • In 1917, spy target was black America” detailed how Lt. Col. Ralph Van Deman created the Army’s black spy network out of the Military Intelligence Division beginning in 1917 and how he continued to influence spying on American citizens until his death in 1952.
  • Top spy feared current below surface unrest” described Lt. Gen. William P. Yarborough’s role as Army assistant chief of staff for intelligence beginning in December 1966 and his concern that anarchy and treason lay behind the anti-war and civil rights movements.
  • Spying linked Carmichael to Chinese, Cuba,” listed 1967 surveillance of Stokely Carmichael by Army Intelligence and its alarm of growing militancy among anti-war and civil rights groups and Carmichael’s willingness to turn to violence and possible foreign influence.

The front-page “Army feared King” story provides a wealth of information about what was known at that time to be the Army’s largest-ever espionage operation within the United States.

At first, the Army used a reporting network of private citizens that included church members, black businessmen such as Memphis’s Robert R. Church Jr., and black educators like the Hampton Institute’s Roscoe C. Simmons. It later employed cadres of infiltrators, wiretaps and aerial photography by U2 spy planes.

As the civil rights movement merged with anti-war protests in the late 1960s, some Army units began supplying sniper rifles and other weapons of war to civilian police departments. Army Intelligence began planning for what some officers believed would soon be armed rebellion.

By March 1968, King was preparing to lead a march in Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers and another march a few weeks later that would swamp Washington with people demanding less attention to Vietnam and more resources for America’s poor.

By then the Army’s intelligence system was keenly focused on King and desperately searching for a way to stop him....

The Commercial Appeal’s 16-month investigation of the Army’s secret spy war with black citizens provides a first-time look inside the Army’s largest-ever espionage operation within the United States.

Much of the story was pieced together from a trail of memos, memoirs, diaries and meeting notes scattered around the country in military archives, the Library of Congress, presidential libraries and private collections. Some of the documents are still classified. Other pieces came from interviews with nearly 200 participants, including the recollections of several dozen Army agents still living in this country and in Mexico.

This newspaper’s investigation uncovered no hard evidence that Army Intelligence played any role in King’s assassination, although Army agents were in Memphis the day he was killed.

But the review of thousands of government documents and interviews with people involved in the spying revealed that by early 1968 Army Intelligence regarded King as a major threat to national security.

Hence, by early 1968, United States Army Intelligence saw Martin Luther King as a major threat to national security. In other words to U.S. corporate business interests.

William Pepper has written a trilogy of books on the assassination of Martin Luther King:

  1. Orders To Kill: The Truth Beyond the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1995),
  2. An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King (2003), and
  3. The Plot to Kill King: The Truth Behind the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (2016).

As he recounts in the 2003 talk he gave on the release of An Act of State:

In this [“Army Feared King”] article there was one little paragraph that caught my eye. It said, in Memphis on the day of the assassination of Martin King there was an [Special Forces] Alpha 184 Team there. And nobody understood why that team was there. Alpha 184 six-man unit was a sniper team. No one understood why they were there.

I was curious about that and I went to see Steve and I said, ‘This is a whole other dimension to the case.’ I was beginning to form the opinion pretty clearly that Martin King had been killed as the result of a Mafia contract. There were any number of bounties on him in those periods of time and a fair amount of money had been raised to try to get him killed. None of the occurrences were successful and I figured ultimately one was and this was a Mafia hit. And that was it.

But now, all of a sudden, into this picture comes one of the most secretive aspects of the government of the United States: the role of the Army and the Army and military intelligence on American soil. That bounded and intrigued me so I said to Steve, ‘Will you arrange for these guys’—whom he knew, he knew two members of this sniper team—‘will you ask them if they’ll answer questions for me?’ It took awhile and he said No, he wouldn’t. He refused for the longest time. He didn’t want anything to do with these people again because he said they were nasty, they’d kill you where you stand, they’d kill your family, your kids, anyone else. These are just trained killers and that was the way it was. He didn’t want anything more to do with them.

So I kept going back and again [saying] ‘Look, we got this guy in jail and we believe he is innocent. Any information I can get I need to have.’ Finally he said he would help. They would not however meet with me. They would trust him because he had never betrayed them. He was a former Naval Intelligence officer himself. So he agreed to take questions from me and they agreed to take those questions and answer them. For a long, extended period of time I would give Steve questions. He would go and he would come back with answers. He’d go again, come back. This was all in his spare time and only his expenses were paid.

As he got the answers to the questions—he knew nothing really about the details of the assassination—he didn’t even know why I was asking certain things. But as he got those answers back to me—these people were in Mexico by the way; they fled the United States in the ’70s because they thought there was a clean-up operation underway so he had to make the trip to Mexico—the picture started to become clearer and clearer to me as I got the answers to these questions.

It became evident that the military did not kill Martin King but that they were there in Memphis as what I’ve come to believe was a backup operation. Because King was never going to be allowed to leave Memphis. If the contract that was given didn’t work these guys were going to do it. The story they told was that the six of them were briefed at 4:30 in the morning at Camp Shelby. The started out around 5 o’clock. They came to Memphis. They were briefed there. They took up their positions....

This was not a one-off for these guys. They were trained snipers. You remember a hundred cities burned in America in 1967. These guys were sent around the country, teams of them, into different cities. These particular fellows had been in Detroit, Newark and Tampa and possibly L.A. They were given mug-books. Those mug-books were the photographs of community leaders and people who were to be their targets. And they would be put in positions and they would take out community leaders who would somehow be killed in the course of the rioting that was going on in various cities.

The assassination of Martin King was a part of what amounted to an on-going covert program in which they tried to suppress dissent and disruption in America.

Pepper’s investigation of Dr. King’s assassination had already been underway for fifteen years by the time he read the March 21, 1993 article in the Commercial Appeal and then met with Steve Tompkins to pursue the leads it opened up. Given that Martin King had been under army surveillance, Pepper wondered if the killing had been photographed. One thing led to another and in time it was confirmed that the whole assassination been photographed by two Army officers who were positioned on the roof of Memphis Fire Station No. 2. across Mulberry Street from the Lorraine Motel.

map in Memphis

As he describes in the above transcript, Pepper succeeded in enlisting Steve Tompkins’ help in re-contacting some of the army officers Tompkins had interviewed for the Commercial Appeal article and to be the liaison to personally transmit Pepper’s questions and return with their answers. The following is from An Act of State:

My questions would be carried to him by Steve Tompkins. The meeting was set for early December 1994 in the coffee shop of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago.

Reynolds was about 5 feet 10 inches tall, 160-170 pounds, with gray, short cropped hair. He said that in Vietnam he had been assigned to the 1st SOG based in Can Tho and that he worked for the 525th Psychological Operations Battalion. Reynolds said that he and his partner (whom I will call “Norton”) were deployed to Memphis on April 3 as a part of a wider mission they believed was under the overall command of Colonel Downie of the 902nd MIG, for whom he had worked on a number of assignments. They carried the necessary camera equipment and were armed with standard issue .45 caliber automatics. Norton also carried a small revolver in a holster in the small of his back. They were ordered to be in position on April 4, and on that day they arrived before noon and went directly to fire station no. 2 where the captain, Carthel Weeden, gave them access to the flat roof. They took up their positions on the east side of the roof. From that vantage point they overlooked the Lorraine and were well placed to carry out their mission, which was to visually and photographically surveil the King group at the Lorraine Motel and pick out any individuals in photos who might be identified as a communist or national security threat. They had an unobstructed view of the balcony in front of Dr King’s room, 306. My colleagues and I long wondered why the army would want to take photographs of the events unfolding on that day.

I have come to believe that the main reason for the photographing was very likely to enable Downie and the relevant army counterintelligence officers not only to be able to identify everyone in the vicinity of the crime scene but also, in particular, to have a clear picture of what they were doing immediately before, at the time of, and immediately after the assassination. This photographic intelligence would certainly give them a lead start in being able to take whatever steps were necessary to suppress observations which could potentially jeopardize the operation.

Then, on New Year’s Day 1996, Steve Tompkins received an unexpected telephone call. It was purportedly from Colonel John Downie of the 902nd Military Intelligence Group. I had tried to locate him for three years concluding that his little-known unit, based inside the office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, played the primary organizing and coordinating role in the assassination. He was now living outside the United States, and said he had found my earlier book Orders to Kill remarkably accurate, though it gave him too much responsibility for the operation. He insisted he was only an officer in a chain of command following orders. He wanted to correct my impression of his role so the history of these events would be accurately recorded....

Steve traveled alone to the meeting. The next morning there was a knock on his door. Downie introduced himself. He stood almost six feet tall, weighed around 185 pounds and appeared to be in his mid-sixties. He was pleased that Steve had arrived alone and reiterated he would not meet with me. He said I was not in danger, since my earlier book had been buried and no one would believe my story. Surprisingly, he said he had met me in Vietnam when I was a journalist. He stated he had been legally dead for a number of years, and was living under a new identity.

He said he would provide all the details possible, but explained, in true military style, that he would have been outside the loop in some aspects of planning and implementation. Five meetings took place over the next eighteen months. The information this man provided gradually served to corroborate that provided earlier by other military and government personnel.

Downie confirmed he played a key role in coordinating the task force consisting of the various military units in Memphis during the week of April 1, up to and including April 4. However, he contended that while he met ACSI [Assistant Chief of Staff] Yarborough on a regular basis, his orders were passed through a trusted civilian associate. The emissary, whose name I had never heard before, was a retired army intelligence officer who had served at Fort Bragg under Yarborough. Though the operation came under the jurisdiction of the ACSI’s office it was handled indirectly through this trusted loyal colleague.

Downie said the Memphis operation seemed to have been put in motion following a meeting that took place about a week after the riot in Detroit which he attended with Yarborough and others. Dr King’s popularity with urban blacks, his opposition to the Vietnam War, and his determination to bring impoverished masses to the nation’s capital all helped seal his fate. Downie confirmed Warren and Murphy’s account of the Memphis mission, even such details as “friendlies not wearing ties.” He said the 902nd began to plan the killing of black community leaders as early as 1963 and 1964 when it seemed cities might get out of hand. He said the unit was still in existence. (pp.74-76)

While Orders To Kill was never reviewed in the U.S., Pepper had been in touch with the King family and they knew about the work. Pepper had continued trying to get a new trial for James Earl Ray who was dying. The King family came out very strongly in support of a trial for Ray, knowing they would suffer, as they did, in terms of losing millions of dollars of contributions to the King Center. Ray died in 1998 of hepatitis in prison, after being denied receiving a liver transplant.

After this Pepper and the King family met to decide what options were left in terms of getting the truth out. The final option was a civil suit. Pepper proposed a wrongful death civil action against Loyd Jowers and other known and unknown conspirators. Coretta King made the decision to go to trial.

The case was tried in the Circuit Court of Shelby County, Tennessee Thirtieth Judicial District at Memphis, from November 15 to December 8, 1999 and included 70 witnesses. The plaintiffs were the King family and the defendants were Loyd Jowers and other Unknown Conspirators. Apart from the courtroom participants only Memphis TV reporter Wendell Stacy and author Jim Douglass attended from beginning to end this historic three-and-one-half week trial of the century. The jury took just under one hour to come back with a verdict on behalf of the Kings and against Jowers and known and unknown conspirators. A hypertext representation of the complete trial transcript is available. A good overview of the trial with links back into the court transcript is Jim Douglass’ “The Martin Luther King Conspiracy Exposed in Memphis.”

That most people know nothing about this trial is indicative of the level of information control being exercised by the U.S. national security establishment. As Pepper acknowledged in 2003: “The consolidation of the control of the media is a major problem in this democracy as it is in most democracies today. I don’t know how democracy can function when people are not allowed information that’s essential for the decision-making process. But rather they get propaganda continually.”

Near the end of William Pepper’s 2003 talk on the release of An Act of State, he summarized the danger Martin Luther King posed to the U.S. interests of the national security state establishment.

But he was much more than a civil rights leader and that’s what no one in official capacity wants you to know. He had moved well beyond the civil rights movement by 1964-65 and he had become effectively a world-figure in terms of human rights people and particularly the poor of this earth. That’s where he was going. That’s the area you don’t really get into safely when you start talking about wealth, redistributing wealth. Taking, diverting huge sums of money into social welfare programs and health programs and educational programs at the grass roots.

When you start going into that you begin to tread on toes in this country, in the United Kingdom, and in most of the western world. When you start associating with the poor of this planet and the exploitation of what’s happened to whole cultures and tribal cultures in Africa in particular, and you see the results of the exploitation of western colonial powers and when you want to see a movement to not only arrest that process which still goes forward today under different guises but to actually reverse it and to give an opportunity for people to control their destinies and their own natural wealth, that’s dangerous ground to get on. So you have to deal with that another way.

King was committed, increasingly, to that kind of political view which you will not hear about in terms of the ‘I have a dream’ speech which is typically what he is associated with. He wept in India as early as ’60, ’61 when he was there. He had never seen such poverty in such a massive scale. ‘How can people live like this?’

I sympathize with that because when I was a 12-year-old I couldn’t get my middle-class kids in my neighborhood to play baseball with me in the summer heat. So the only way I could do it was to go across to the ghetto which was quite a distance from where I lived, with a little brown bag, and played ball with black kids all day. I did that all summer long just because I loved the game. But it taught me a valuable lesson of how people were forced to live. Because I would be a guest in their homes and I’d see the rats running across the floor, Herbie Fields throwing his shoe at the rats. Things like that.

There’s a lot of people live that like this. Why do people live like this? Most of America doesn’t see that. We are a residentially segregated society forever. King saw that, wanted to bridge it and the solutions were too radical, too potentially dangerous. Jefferson was an idol of his. With all of Jefferson’s foibles, remember he said, ‘You need a revolution every 20 years. You need to sweep the room clean every 20 years,’ said Mr. Jefferson. You need that revolution. King believed that as well.

On April 4, 1968 Martin King was crystal clear about what he stood for and what he opposed at Riverside Church. His words and the understanding and compassion they communicated called out then, and do so still today, the best in human nature to challenge and transform the worst.

It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

Instead of a "Martin Luther King" holiday mandated by the federal government, we need a Martin Luther King Day of Truth, every day of the year.

Needed: A Martin Luther King Day of Truth
     William F. Pepper, 21 June 2016
[T]he assassination of Martin King, and all of the other assassinations in the sixties...have to be seen in a historical context. You have to go back effectively, to the compelled death of Socrates, work through Caesar, all the way down and you will see whenever a ruling structure cannot control an errant leader, if they can’t control him in one way or another, ultimately they assassinate him. That has happened throughout history. Americans don’t understand that, so they look upon, as a kind of anomaly...the assassinations in the United States in the sixties, and they’re not. They are a part of a historical process and must be viewed that way. Martin King had to be stopped. The only way to stop him ultimately was to assassinate him and that’s what they did.
—Dr. William F. Pepper, Esq., on release of his book, The Plot To Kill King, 21 Jun 2016
by Ed Curtin:
by Joseph E Green: The MLK 10-Point Program, 2013
  William F. Pepper with Martin Luther King, 1967     
In his “Little Essays of Love and Virtue” Havelock Ellis, writing in 1922, during another period of heralded American prosperity, and perhaps sensing what lay ahead as there would be only seven years before economic disaster struck, said: “all civilisation has from time to time become a thin crust over a volcano of revolution”. This was, of course, the fear in 1967 and 1968. Martin Luther King Jr was, for the transnational corporations, public enemy number one. He stood in the way of their inexorable consolidation of power. If he had played along as have many of his peers before and after, he would likely be with us today, a wealthy and honored man, a pillar of the state. But he did not choose to play that game and as we have seen the might of the steward state was brought to bear upon him, and to this day the pillars of the American Republic continue to be supported by the same foundation stones of lies and greed which he was determined to crumble to dust and replace.

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