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This is a hypertext representation of Jim Douglass’ lecture with his
original footnotes as well as some additions.
Hyperlinks and additional notes by David
Ratcliffe with the assistance and approval of Jim Douglass.
|In September 2005, James Douglass accepted an invitation from the president of Princeton Theological Seminary on behalf of the Council on Black Concerns to deliver their annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture on March 29, 2006. Previous lecturers included James H. Cone, Katie Geneva Cannon, and Michael Dyson.|
Peace be with you.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in the spring of 1968, I was teaching a religion course at the University of Hawaii called “The Theology of Peace.” Several students were moved by King’s death and his resistance to the Vietnam War to burn their draft cards, making them liable to years in prison. I joined their anti-war group, the Hawaii Resistance. A month later, we sat in front of a convoy of trucks taking the members of the Hawaii National Guard to Oahu’s Jungle Warfare Training Center, on their way to the jungles of Vietnam. I went to jail for two weeks – the beginning of the end of my academic career. Members of the Hawaii Resistance served from six months to two years in prison for their draft resistance, or wound up going into exile in Sweden or Canada.
Martin Luther King’s martyrdom was our baptism into nonviolence as a way of life, a step beyond our classes where we talked hopefully but abstractly about a theology of peace. King’s willingness to give his life inspired us to choose life. We learned that freedom is not free. The cross is real. A way of liberation passes through fire.
More than three decades later, while attending the only trial ever held for Dr. King’s murder, in a Memphis courtroom a few blocks from where he was killed, I heard 70 witnesses describe the fire he passed through. They told how King was stalked and killed not by the scapegoat James Earl Ray but by U.S. government agencies using Mafia intermediaries and Memphis police officers. I learned that Martin Luther King, Jr., after vowing to end the Vietnam War and systemic poverty in the United States, was set up and murdered by our national security state. His assassination was carried out and covered up by the same government that now honors his birthday as a national holiday.
The revelation of Martin’s martyrdom led me to investigate Malcolm’s martyrdom. What I discovered was a similar plot. I learned that Malcolm X, El-Haj Malik El-Shabazz, while trying to put the U.S. on trial in the United Nations for human rights violations against African Americans, also became a government target. He was stalked and killed by U.S. intelligence agencies using not Mafia but Nation of Islam intermediaries.
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were both executed by what Dr. King described, at the height of the Vietnam War, as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.” While our government waged a criminal war in Southeast Asia, in which the poor, largely people of color, of the United States fought the poor of Vietnam on behalf of a military-industrial complex, our two greatest prophets resisted that systemic, racist evil with their whole lives. Malcolm and Martin came to see the entire Cold War as a scam, in which a corporate, racist power dominated as much of the world as it could by lying about both itself and its ideological enemy. Our prophets of change, Malcolm and Martin, were then spied on and undermined by government agencies in ways that led, step by step, to their murders.
Let us begin with the story of Malcolm’s martyrdom, which will lead us into the story of Martin’s martyrdom.
A New York FBI Director, James Fox, once made a carefully worded denial that the FBI was involved in Malcolm X’s assassination. While granting that the FBI used a Counterintelligence Program to destroy black activists, Fox said, “I do, however, reject any suggestion that the FBI was directly involved in the murder of Malcolm X.” (emphasis added) The FBI could not deny having been at least indirectly involved in killing Malcolm, because in the 1970s it became public knowledge that the Bureau had successfully developed a deadly conflict between Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammed and his disciple, Malcolm X.
The FBI’s documented purpose was to develop a factional dispute that would divorce Malcolm from the Nation of Islam (NOI). The FBI infiltrated “key persons” into the national staff of the NOI at its Chicago office. The FBI operatives in Chicago then developed the fatal division between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, forcing Malcolm to resign from the NOI, just as the FBI had plotted. The final fruit of the FBI’s COINTELPRO and a wider government conspiracy was Malcolm’s assassination.
The most serious conflict between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X occurred when Malcolm learned of rumors about his mentor’s affairs with young women. The FBI was spreading the rumors, sending fake letters on Elijah’s infidelities to his wife and ministers, foreshadowing what the Bureau would do to destroy Martin Luther King. At the same time Malcolm was confronting Elijah, he also spoke out publicly on President Kennedy’s assassination in a shocking way that gave Elijah an excuse for punishing him. Elijah ordered Malcolm to be silent for 90 days. What Malcolm had done, unlike any other public figure, was to link JFK’s murder with U.S intelligence agencies.
On December 1, 1963, after a speech he gave in New York City, Malcolm was asked his opinion of the president’s murder. His response is repeated in his autobiography:
Without a second thought, I said what I honestly felt – that it was, as I saw it, a case of ‘the chickens coming home to roost.’ I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, finally had struck down this country’s Chief of State. I said it was the same thing as had happened with [civil rights leader] Medgar Evers, with Patrice Lumumba, with Madame Nhu’s husband.
Of the three examples Malcolm cited for the “chickens coming home to roost” in Dallas, two involved CIA-instigated killings in Third World countries: the assassinations of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and of Ngo Dinh Nhu with his brother Diem in South Vietnam. Malcolm’s statement on the president’s murder anticipated the prophetic insight he would have into the covert forces behind his own assassination. He would finally realize it was the U.S. government, not Elijah Muhammad, that was the real power behind the plot against him. Malcolm, who always had eyes in the back of his head, is the best analyst of his own murder.
In March 1964, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam. He then began a campaign to bring U.S. violations of African-Americans’ human rights before the court of world opinion in the United Nations.
The FBI realized it had made a major miscalculation. Its COINTELPRO that provoked the divorce between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad liberated Malcolm for a bigger mission than anything he could do in the Nation of Islam. Yet the Nation could still be used to silence Malcolm. Malcolm had to be stopped because his international strategy invoking human rights against the U.S. government was catching the attention of a potential ally far more powerful than Elijah Muhammad: Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin and Malcolm met on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on March 26, 1964. They had both been listening to the Senate’s debate on civil rights legislation. As they shook hands warmly and were interviewed, Malcolm grinned and said he was there to remind the white man of the alternative to Dr. King. King offered a militant alternative of his own, saying that if the Senate kept on talking and doing nothing, a “creative direct action program” would start. If the Civil Rights Act were not passed, he warned, “our nation is in for a dark night of social disruption.”
Although Malcolm and Martin would continue to differ sharply on nonviolence, their meeting was an epiphany. Malcolm’s escalation of civil rights to human rights and Martin’s increasing calls for massive civil disobedience made their prophetic visions complementary.
In April 1964, the New York Police Department, working closely with the FBI, infiltrated Malcolm’s new Muslim Mosque in Harlem with its elite intelligence unit, the Bureau of Special Service and Investigation (BOSSI). BOSSI’s commander for the deep cover operation against Malcolm was Tony Ulasewicz, who would later become infamous as President Richard Nixon’s private detective for covert “dirty tricks” that would then be exposed by the Senate Watergate Hearings.
Four days after Malcolm left New York for his transforming pilgrimage to Mecca, Tony Ulasewicz sent a 25-year-old black detective, Gene Roberts, to an undercover assignment at Malcolm’s newly founded Muslim Mosque, where Roberts soon became one of Malcolm’s security guards. Although Gene Roberts reported daily to the New York Police (and through them, the FBI), he would before long begin to be won over by Malcolm.
At Mecca, Malcolm was converted to a vision he described as “The brotherhood! The people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one!” He said, “It has proved to me the power of the One God.” It also deepened his conviction that “the earth’s most explosive and pernicious evil is racism, the inability of God’s creatures to live as One, especially in the Western world.”
In May 1964, the five men who would kill Malcolm X nine months later came together for the first time, according to the confession of one of them, Talmadge Hayer. They belonged to the Nation of Islam’s Mosque Number 25 in Newark. Two of the men, Benjamin Thomas and Leon Davis, said “word was out that Malcolm X should be killed.” Ben Thomas, the assistant secretary of the Newark Mosque, was in the Nation of Islam’s direct chain of command below Elijah Muhammad and the FBI’s assets in the Chicago office.
That summer Martin Luther King and Malcolm X tried to meet again. FBI agents wiretapped a Malcolm phone call in which they learned that Martin’s attorney, Clarence Jones, left a message for Malcolm. Jones said, “Rev. King would like to meet as soon as possible on the idea of getting a human rights declaration.”
In the 12 days before Malcolm departed on a long trip to Africa, he and King were unable to meet. However, the FBI knew, through its electronic surveillance, that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were hoping to connect on the human rights issue that could put the U.S. on trial in the United Nations. While New York Police and FBI agents monitored the Muslim Mosque in Harlem, CIA agents followed Malcolm abroad, making themselves obvious so as to intimidate him. Then on July 23, as Malcolm was about to present his UN human rights appeal to the continent’s nationalist leaders at the Organization of African Unity meeting in Cairo, he was poisoned.
He was having dinner at a hotel with his friend, Milton Henry, he said later, “when two things happened simultaneously. I felt a pain in my stomach and, in a flash, I realized that I’d seen the waiter who served me before. He looked South American, and I’d seen him in New York. The poison bit into me like teeth. It was strong stuff. They rushed me to the hospital just in time to pump the stuff out of my stomach. The doctor told Milton that there was a toxic substance in my food. When the Egyptians who were with me looked for the waiter who had served me, he had vanished. I know that our [Nation of Islam] Muslims don’t have the resources to finance a worldwide spy network.”
The friend who witnessed his poisoning, Detroit civil rights attorney Milton Henry, warned Malcolm that his UN campaign could mean his death. Henry later felt that it did: “In formulating this policy, in hitting the nerve center of America, he also signed his own death warrant.”
For four months, Malcolm traveled around Africa, holding follow-up meetings with the heads of state who had encouraged him most in Cairo: President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Prime Minister Milton Obote of Uganda, President Azikiwe of Nigeria, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Prime Minister Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria, and President Sekou Toure of Guinea. At the height of the Cold War, Malcolm X had gained access to Africa’s most revolutionary leaders on a politically explosive issue.
On August 13, a New York Times correspondent reported from Washington on the State and Justice Departments’ “interest in Malcolm X’s campaign to convince African states to raise the question of persecution of American Negroes at the United Nations.... Before leaving for Cairo, Malcolm told friends in New York that it was his intention to add a new dimension to the civil rights struggle in the United States. This, he said, could be achieved by ‘internationalizing’ the Negro question at the United Nations in the manner that South African apartheid was transferred into an international problem.” According to the Times article, “[Washington] officials said that if Malcolm succeeded in convincing just one African Government to bring up the charge at the United Nations, the United States Government would be faced with a touchy problem.”
Washington officials were warning Malcolm publicly to back off. The unmentioned agency responsible for dealing with such “a touchy problem” was the CIA. After consulting with President Johnson and FBI Director Hoover, the State Department told the CIA’s director of covert action in a memorandum that “Malcolm X has, for all practical purposes, renounced his U.S. citizenship.” Malcolm had never renounced his citizenship, but the State Department was now telling the CIA’s director of covert action to deal with him as if he were a foreign adversary.
After 18 weeks meeting with African leaders, Malcolm flew back to New York at the end of November 1964. He was soon confronted by an issue of the Nation of Islam newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, featuring an attack on him by Minister Louis X (known later as Louis Farrakhan). Louis X wrote: “The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape, especially after such evil, foolish talk about his benefactor ... Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death...” Louis Farrakhan has in recent years acknowledged publicly that his words “were like fuel on a fire” and “helped create the atmosphere” that moved others to kill Malcolm.
On December 1, Malcolm’s close friend, Alex Quaison-Sackey of Ghana, was elected President of the UN General Assembly. Quaison-Sackey arranged for Malcolm to have his own office at the UN to organize his human rights campaign. Malcolm was not about to back off from his UN confrontation with the U.S. on human rights.
In February 1965, Malcolm X once again almost connected with Martin Luther King. The place was Selma, Alabama, during a turbulent civil rights campaign. The date was February 4, 17 days before Malcolm’s death.
When Malcolm arrived in Selma after speaking at nearby Tuskegee Institute the night before, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff was panicked. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists present wanted Malcolm to speak to the crowd at Brown Chapel. With Dr. King in jail, his SCLC staff called on Coretta Scott King to speak after Malcolm to put out his fire. Mrs. King was instead inspired by Malcolm to see the hope of a transforming convergence between him and her husband.
Malcolm told the crowd of activists that because civil rights were human rights, the U.S. government by failing to uphold their rights was in violation of the United Nations Charter. Coretta was then impressed by the gentle way in which Malcolm said to her afterwards, “Mrs. King, will you tell Dr. King that I had planned to visit with him in jail? I won’t get a chance now because I’ve got to leave to get to New York in time to catch a plane for London...”
From his speaking engagement in London, Malcolm flew on to Paris. At Orly Airport in Paris, he was given a clue to his impending assassination. He found himself barred from entering France. The French police put him on a flight back to London.
Malcolm was shocked. Why had France, one of Europe’s most liberal countries where he had spoken before without incident, suddenly barred him? The answer was given later to an investigative journalist, Eric Norden, who probed Malcolm’s death. A highly placed North African diplomat said word had been passed to his country by French intelligence “that the CIA planned Malcolm’s murder, and France feared he might be liquidated on its soil,” thereby scapegoating France.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were prophets who never stopped turning toward a deeper truth. They kept turning toward the transformation of the world in Allah/God, regardless of the consequences to themselves. Today we know about the murder plots against them because participants in those plots also turned toward the truth. One such person was Talmadge Hayer, a shooter of Malcolm X, whose confession I have cited. Hayer confessed his crime to try to exonerate two wrongly convicted co-defendants. Hayer recognized he had been manipulated by forces beyond his knowledge into committing a terrible crime. During his three decades in prison, Talmadge Hayer then turned his life around to become Mujahid Abdul Halim, a devout Muslim, who led an exemplary life serving his fellow prisoners in the Napanoch, New York, state prison.
Another witness who turned from his past mistakes, who was then liberated to speak out on Martin Luther King’s assassination, was Myron Billett, a member of the Mafia. While serving a sentence in the late 1970s for manslaughter, Myron Billett was visited in the Ohio State Penitentiary by a great Cincinnati minister and peacemaker, Maurice McCrackin, who became his best friend. Billett then revealed to McCrackin that in January 1968 he was present when FBI and CIA agents offered a Mafia leader one million dollars to kill Martin Luther King.
Myron Billett said that at a meeting he had arranged in Apalachin, New York, three representatives of the CIA and FBI asked New York Mafia don Carlo Gambino if he would accept a one-million-dollar contract to assassinate King. Billett recalled the exact words of Gambino’s reply: “In no way would I or the family get involved with you people again. You messed up the Cuba deal. You messed up the Kennedy deal.” The CIA and FBI men said they would make “other arrangements” and departed. Three months later, King was murdered in a government conspiracy that, as revealed in the Memphis trial I attended, included “other arrangements” with mob intermediaries, namely the New Orleans and Memphis Mafia.
Why would Martin Luther King be targeted for assassination by his own government’s intelligence agencies?
Just as Malcolm X, El-Haj Malik El-Shabazz, took the Holy Qur’an seriously, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took the Holy Bible seriously. For King, the prophets and Jesus made it imperative that we turn as a people toward justice and peace or we would be destroyed: Nonviolence or nonexistence. The continually repeated contingency prophecy of Jesus of Nazareth and Martin Luther King is an either/or: Either turn toward our God of Justice and Peace or we as a people will be left with no stone on another (Mark 13:2), just as the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 and as the World Trade Center was in 2001, just as one U.S. city after another can be blown up today in response to our government’s pre-emptive war policy. Those who take up the sword (or the Bomb) will perish by the sword (or the Bomb) (Matthew 26:52). Nonviolence or nonexistence.
Martin Luther King became a mortal enemy of Washington on April 4, 1967, one year to the day before his assassination, when he said in his great Riverside Church Address against the Vietnam War: “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”
Dr. King saw the Vietnam War as the revelation of a profound systemic evil that would define the future of America, as in fact it has right up to the present. He said:
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing Clergy and Laymen Concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts takes us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as children of the living god.
However, from the government’s standpoint, Martin Luther King had gone beyond the point of no return. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a memorandum to President Lyndon Johnson stating:
Based on King’s recent activities and public utterances, it is clear that he is an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation.
In the Memphis trial, Rev. James Lawson, King’s friend and co-organizer, testified that hatred and fear of King deepened in response to his plan to hold the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. According to King’s vision, an interracial army of poor persons would come together in the nation’s capital in late April 1968. They would then engage in wave after wave of mass civil disobedience to dislocate the functioning of the city.
King hoped that the waves of poor Americans from around the country would tie up Washington through nonviolent direct action until Congress passed a comprehensive anti-poverty bill. The absolute minimum in legislation, King told reporters in February 1968, was a full-employment commitment, a guaranteed annual income, and construction funds for at least a half million units of low-cost housing per year. Policymakers feared King would succeed in bringing the nation’s capital to a halt until they made a commitment to eliminate poverty in the United States.
The intelligence community also knew, from listening electronically to King’s meetings and phone conversations, that he had an even broader vision of the Poor People’s Campaign. With the Vietnam War at its peak in the spring of 1968, King told his staff, “After we get [to D.C.], and stay a few days, [we’ll] 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.”
In his Canadian Broadcasting Corporation lectures at the end of 1967 (later published as The Trumpet of Conscience), King’s vision went beyond even these concerns. He saw the next step as a global nonviolent movement using escalating acts of massive civil disobedience to disrupt the entire international order and block economic and political exploitation across borders. King saw the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike as the beginning of the Poor People’s Campaign, which was in turn a step toward a global nonviolent revolution.
The power structure knew, perhaps better than we did, the breadth of this prophet’s vision. Memphis was a last chance to stop him before he led the Poor People’s Campaign into Washington.
Martin Luther King’s commitment to walk the way of Jesus in our Jerusalem, by disrupting the temples of the Pentagon and Wall Street, placed him in absolute conflict with a national security state that had taken over the U.S. government, making it the most powerful government in history. In the course of the Cold War, that government sanctioned covert action and assassinations, just as it does today more publicly. Given what Washington had become, and who Martin Luther King was becoming, it would be surprising if King were not to be assassinated by his government.
The assassinations of Malcolm and Martin have close parallels, because they can be traced to the same sources: our government’s covert action agencies.
Both men were set up.
At 2:45 a.m. on Sunday, February 14, 1965, the Queens home in which Malcolm X and his family were sleeping was firebombed. Malcolm, Betty Shabazz, who was six months pregnant with twins, and their four daughters barely escaped. Two days after the firebombing, police detectives told the media that a whisky bottle containing gasoline had been found “intact and upright on top of a baby dresser” in the house, implying that Malcolm had left it there. Both the police and a Nation of Islam spokesman suggested Malcolm burned down his house for the sake of publicity. The police did not mention that it was Betty Shabazz who, on returning to the gutted house to salvage belongings, had found the bottle on her baby’s dresser. She had pointed it out to firefighters. How had it gotten there?
Malcolm had been saying, “My house was bombed by the Black Muslim movement upon the orders of Elijah Muhammad.” When Betty discovered the bottle of gasoline on the dresser and the police raised it publicly, she and Malcolm knew, as Betty said later, “Only someone in the uniform of a fireman or a policeman could have planted the bottle of gasoline on my baby’s dresser.” The police had tried to scapegoat them. Malcolm and Betty suspected they were being set up for something worse.
In the meantime, a dry run of Malcolm’s assassination had already happened at the Audubon Ballroom. It was witnessed by the New York Police infiltrator, Gene Roberts, who had become Malcolm’s security guard. By this time, Roberts had also become Malcolm’s friend and admirer. He was taking his role as Malcolm’s bodyguard more seriously than his mentors wanted.
When Malcolm spoke at the Audubon Ballroom on Monday, February 15, Gene Roberts saw a preview of what would happen the following Sunday: a fake disruption in the audience designed to draw everyone’s attention, then a movement elsewhere toward Malcolm, which on Sunday would include three shooters firing simultaneously.
Roberts said he called his New York Police supervisors when the meeting was over.
He said, “Listen. I just saw the dry run on Malcolm’s life. I feel like it’s going to go down next Sunday.”
They said, “Okay, we’ll pass it on.”
* * *
When Martin Luther King went to Memphis on March 28, 1968, to march with the sanitation workers, government provocateurs infiltrated the march. The provocateurs broke windows, disrupted the march, and provoked a police riot. The violence made it necessary for King to return to Memphis on April 3, to prepare for a truly nonviolent march that would prove SCLC could carry out a nonviolent Poor People’s Campaign in Washington. By being forced to return to Memphis, King was being set up for his assassination.
He was also channeled into registering at the Lorraine Motel. On the day after the disrupted march, an FBI-authored article was passed to news media that read:
The fine Hotel Lorraine in Memphis is owned and patronized exclusively by Negroes but King didn’t go there from his hasty exit [from the march]. Instead King decided the plush Holiday Inn Motel, white owned, operated and almost exclusively white patronized, was the place to ‘cool it.’ There will be no boycott of white merchants for King, only for his followers.
Although the Lorraine Motel posed security problems, those making King’s arrangements booked him there beginning April 3, just as the FBI wanted.
The Lorraine’s owners, Walter and Lorraine Bailey, initially gave King a more secure inner court room behind the motel’s office. However, Martin’s SCLC staff, like Malcolm’s Muslim Mosque, had been infiltrated by the government. On the night before King’s arrival in Memphis, an unidentified male member of King’s staff in Atlanta phoned the Baileys at the Lorraine. The man insisted that King’s room be changed from the (more secure) inside location to an outside balcony room completely exposed to public view. The change was made. The scene was set for April 4.
Malcolm’s and Martin’s assassinations were both characterized by a withdrawal of police security.
When the New York Police authorities received Gene Roberts’ warning from the dry run he witnessed on Malcolm’s life, they responded by stationing their officers at the Audubon the following Sunday in rooms away from the ballroom. They ordered their men not to move in the direction of the ballroom, unless given permission by their superiors on a walkie-talkie. When the police who had been removed from the scene of Malcolm’s murder then heard shots coming from the ballroom, the walkie-talkie went dead. The police wound up strolling into the ballroom 15 minutes after Malcolm was killed, a scene made famous in Spike Lee’s film.
* * *
Martin Luther King’s ordinary police security in Memphis included a special unit of black officers commanded by Captain Jerry Williams. However, for King’s April 3 arrival, Williams was disturbed that he was not asked to form the special black bodyguard.
Moreover, two black firefighters at Fire Station 2, across the street from the Lorraine Motel, were inexplicably transferred early on April 4 to fire stations where they were not needed. In addition, a black Memphis Police Department detective, Ed Redditt, who was watching King’s room from a Fire Station 2 surveillance post, was suddenly removed from his post two hours before King’s murder. The order was given by Memphis Police and Fire Director Frank Holloman, who had recently retired from 25 years with the FBI, seven of them as the supervisor of J. Edgar Hoover’s office. Holloman ordered detective Redditt to go home because, Holloman claimed, Redditt’s life had been threatened. Redditt protested, obeyed the order, and arrived home just as King was shot.
Finally, also on April 4, by order of Frank Holloman’s subordinate, Inspector Sam Evans, the four tactical police units patrolling the Lorraine Motel area were all pulled back, thereby allowing an assassin to escape more easily.
Malcolm’s and Martin’s murders were facilitated by the systematic withdrawal of all their normal security.
* * *
The assassination of Malcolm X on Sunday, February 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem proceeded like an execution, for that is what it was. A J. Edgar Hoover memorandum of February 4 shows that Malcolm on his trip to England and France was monitored by a complete covert action network. It included the FBI, the CIA Director, the CIA’s Deputy Director of Plans (meaning covert action and assassinations), the Army Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, the Director of Naval Intelligence, the Chief of the Air Force Counterintelligence Division, and offices in London and Paris too sensitive to be identified. These were the chickens Malcolm was talking about in his comment on JFK’s assassination that launched him into independence from Elijah Muhammad. Now after Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca and revolutionary Africa, as he sought to bring the U.S. to court in the United Nations, the same chickens were coming home to roost for him.
On the morning of February 21, Malcolm said to his sister, Ella, in a phone call, “Ask Allah to guide me, because I feel they may have me doomed for this day.”
“Not this day,” Ella protested.
“Yes, this day,” Malcolm said.
Before walking out on the Audubon Ballroom stage the afternoon of February 21, Malcolm told his staff, as he had told Alex Haley the day before, that he was going to stop saying it was the Black Muslims who bombed his home: “I know what they can do. Things have gone beyond that.”
After receiving a long, standing ovation, Malcolm greeted everyone, including the assassins he assumed were present: “As-salaam alaikum.” (“Peace be with you.”) The response came back: “Wa-laikum salaam.” (“And with you peace.”)
Then, as in the dry run on Monday, a man near the back of the ballroom yelled, “Get your hand out of my pocket, man!” Malcolm responded to the sounds of a beginning fight by stepping out from behind the podium and walking to the front of the stage, thus making himself a perfect target. He said, “Now, now, brothers, break it up. Hold it...” Two men with pistols stood up in the front row, and a man behind them with a shotgun moved into the aisle and stepped forward. All three men fired point blank at Malcolm.
* * *
Martin’s assassination was also an execution.
Everything was in place on April 4, 1968. The Mafia’s Frank Liberto, a Memphis produce dealer, had sent a courier to deliver $100,000 to Loyd Jowers, the owner of Jim’s Grill whose back door opened onto the dense bushes across the street from the Lorraine Motel. Jowers then received a rifle in a box on April 3 from a man named Raul. It was Raul who also brought the scapegoat, James Earl Ray, into Memphis on April 4, after Raul had shepherded Ray in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico since the previous summer.
We know Loyd Jowers’ role in the King assassination because he confessed to Martin’s son, Dexter King, and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young in a fall 1998 meeting that was tape-recorded. The audiotape was played for the jury at the 1999 trial I attended. In his confession, Jowers said that meetings to plan the assassination took place at Jim’s Grill. The planners included undercover Memphis Police Department (MPD) Officer Marrell McCollough (who went on to a career with the CIA), Police Lieutenant Earl Clark, a third police officer, and two men who Jowers thought were federal agents.
At 6:00 p.m. on April 4, James Earl Ray was several blocks away at a service station, trying to get a flat spare tire fixed. Unknown to Ray, the fake evidence to scapegoat him had already been left near the entrance to the boarding house where he had rented a room, as we learned from the King trial testimony of Judge Arthur Hanes Jr., Ray’s former attorney. At ten minutes before the assassination, the rifle Ray had bought at Raul’s orders was dropped in the doorway of the Canipe Amusement Company. In the King trial, witness Judge Joe Brown, who had the planted rifle tested, said that because its scope had not been sited, “this weapon literally could not have hit the broad side of a barn.”
At 6:00 p.m., the hired shooter was in the thick brush and bushes directly across from the Lorraine, aiming the real rifle at Martin Luther King, who was standing on the balcony in front of his room. Early the next morning, as established by trial testimony, those same bushes were cut down by order of Police Inspector Sam Evans, thus destroying the crime scene.
* * *
Investigating the assassinations of Martin and Malcolm over the past decade has been a pilgrimage into martyrdom. From that journey I have learned, first of all, how naïve I was about systemic evil. While there is nothing new about prophets being murdered by the system, I was not aware of how well our own system carries out such murders – and why.
I believe a key to this untold history is the fact that our government was the first to develop and use nuclear weapons. The democratic principles we profess were, from the beginning, in conflict with such weapons and our reluctance to submit them to international control.
Nuclear weapons and civil liberties don’t go together. Nuclear weapons and life don’t go together. The rise of our national security state after World War Two, as justified by the Cold War that our nuclear weapons created, was the effective end of democracy in this country. That history of a national security state replacing a democracy was climaxed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, an event that foreshadows the martyrdom of Malcolm and Martin.
A nuclear weapons state that maintains the myth of being a democracy requires what our newspeak language calls “intelligence agencies,” which specialize in covert action, assassinations, and propaganda whose targets include U.S. citizens. The CIA and its related covert action/propaganda agencies have evolved into what we today, with more newspeak (and a verbal surrender to our former World War Two enemies), call “Homeland Security.” I believe the reason why Malcolm’s and Martin’s assassinations by our own government can still shock us is that we are in denial of the fact that our government, by embracing nuclear weapons, became a national security state.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, each in his own unique way, challenged that system to be true to its democratic origins, as did John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert. The four of them offered a combined witness to a process of justice, peace, and nuclear disarmament through which the people of this country could achieve a truly democratic government. Until we turn in that direction, I believe what Martin said remains true in a more terrible sense than ever: The greatest purveyor of terrorism in the world today is my own government.
* * *
As you know well in this community of faith, martyrdom is a witness to a Reality that can overcome any evil on earth. We are talking here about the Reality of Allah/God that was at the center of our prophets’ willingness to confront the system with their whole lives, in an effort to change it for the sake of life itself.
I want to conclude with what Martin and Malcolm said about martyrdom at the ends of their lives – seeing their words and spirits united with each other and with us tonight, to sustain us in the journey ahead.
In the talk Martin gave at Mason Temple in Memphis the night before he died, with thunder cracking outside and the people rising to his words inside, he repeated the prophecy of Jesus that is the test of our survival: “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in the world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”
To choose the nonviolent alternative in that prophecy, rather than our extinction as a species, Martin said, “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” on a journey down the Jericho road that the Good Samaritan traveled when he helped the man in the ditch, a dangerous road where a person can be easily ambushed. Martin went down that road to help the sanitation workers in Memphis, and he was ambushed. He felt it coming, as we know from his final words that night.
God had allowed him, he said, to go up to the mountain, and to look over. And he’d seen the promised land. Sometimes I think we hear the next part a little too easily, Martin’s certainty that “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” Well, Martin was speaking to an oppressed people who’d chosen nonviolence – the striking sanitation workers of Memphis, who were marching for justice. They were the people on their way to the promised land.
Martin wasn’t so certain where the rest of us were going. He continued warning, right up to the end, about where we as a nation were going. Three hours before his death the next day, Martin phoned his church in Atlanta with the title of his Sunday sermon that he would never deliver: “Why America May Go to Hell.”
Malcolm, as a deep believer in Islam, in Peace, chose to die as a martyr. Two days before his death, he spoke with his friend, the photographer Gordon Parks. Malcolm said, “It’s a time for martyrs now. And if I’m to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood. That’s the only thing that can save this country. I’ve learned it the hard way – but I’ve learned it. And that’s the significant thing.”
Malcolm also chose not to go into exile to avoid martyrdom. Twelve days before his death, he had listened patiently in a London hotel room, while a friend, Guyan writer Jan Carew, summoned every word at his command to persuade Malcolm not to return to the United States and almost certain death. Carew even invoked the authority of their ancestral spirit world, “the ghosts in our blood,” to argue against the folly of martyrdom:
Those ancestral spirits whisper warnings, whenever we’re about to do something reckless or foolhardy. Right now they should be whispering to you that, perhaps, surviving for our cause is more important than dying for it.
Malcolm answered, “The spirit world’s fine but I want our folk to be free in the world of the living.” And the unspoken thought: So for the sake of the living, I’ll live the truth freely and openly all the way, regardless of the consequences.
In Malcolm’s eyes, that was freedom. By living and speaking the truth freely, Malcolm denied to the system that assassinated him the victory of taking away his life. He instead gave it freely in the cause of brotherhood and sisterhood – or as he put it at Mecca, for a vision of “the people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one! It has proved to me the power of the One God.”
A “martyr” is literally a witness.
Martin, by going to Memphis, on his way to Washington and the Poor People’s Campaign, was a witness to a vision of transformation ... provided we’re willing to pay the price.
Malcolm, by going to Africa, on his way to the United Nations and an African American stand for human rights, was a witness to a vision of transformation ... provided we’re willing to pay the price.
Malcolm’s final action, in stepping forward to reconcile two brothers in a fight, made him not only a target for murder but also a witness to brotherhood, sisterhood, and the unity of our one family in one God.
As he said to his assassins and to us all, “As-salaam alaikum.”
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Copyright © 2006, 2013 by James W. Douglass