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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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.
On Sunday March 21, 1993 (after the trial was over) a front-page
article was published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal with
“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
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
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:
Orders To Kill: The Truth Beyond the Murder
of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1995),
An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King (2003), and
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
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
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.
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
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
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
[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.
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