Did the Elites Want MLK Dead–If So, Why?

I believe Oswald killed JFK and Sirhan killed Bobby. Lone gunmen both. With MLK, it could be a different matter. And with the infinitely more radical Malcom X it certainly was. The Kennedys were no threat to ruling power. They were part of the ruling power. Whatever his actual function–and King was given a hard time as an Uncle Tom by radicals in the later Sixties–the ruling power construed him as a threat.

He was assassinated forty years ago just after 6 pm as he stood on a balcony of the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tennessee. A single rifle bullet hit him in the jaw, then severed his spinal cord. James Earl Ray, a white man, was convicted of the killing and sentenced to 99 years. Ray was certainly the gunman.

But there are credible theories of a conspiracy, possibly involving US Army intelligence, whose role in the life and death of Martin Luther King was explored by Stephens Tompkins in the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 1993.

The Army’s interest in the King family stretched back to 1917 when the War Department opened a file on King’s maternal grandfather, first president of Atlanta’s branch of the NAACP. King’s father, Martin Sr., also entered Army intelligence files as a potential troublemaker, as did Martin Jr. in 1947 when he was 18. He was attending Dorothy Lilley’s Intercollegiate School in Atlanta and 111th Military Intelligence Group in Fort McPherson in Atlanta suspected Ms Lilley of having Communist ties.

King’s famous denunciation of America’s war in Vietnam came exactly a year before his murder, before a crowd of 3,000 in the Riverside Church in Manhattan. He described Vietnam’s destruction at the hands of ”deadly Western arrogance,” insisting that ”we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” US Army spies secretly recorded black radical Stokely Carmichael warning King, “The Man don’t care you call ghettos concentration camps, but when you tell him his war machine is nothing but hired killers you got trouble.” Carmichael was right.

After the 1967 Detroit riots 496 black men under arrest were interviewed by agents of the Army’s Psychological Operations Group, dressed as civilians. It turned out King was by far the most popular leader. That same year, watching the great antiwar march on Washington in October 1967 from the roof of the Pentagon Major General William Yarborough, assistant chief of staff for Army intelligence, concluded that “the empire was coming apart at the seams”. He thought there were too few reliable troops to fight the war in Vietnam and hold the line at home.

The Army increased surveillance on King. Green Berets and other Special Forces veterans from Vietnam began making street maps and identifying sniper sites in major American cities. The Ku Klux Klan was recruited by the 20th Special Forces Group, headquartered in Alabama, as a subsidiary intelligence network. The Army began offering 30.06 sniper rifles to police departments, including that of Memphis. King was dogged by spy units through early ’67. A Green Beret unit was operating in Memphis the day he was shot. The bullet that killed him came from a 30.06 rifle purchased in a Memphis store. Army intelligence chiefs became increasingly hysterical over the threat of King to national stability.

After his Vietnam speech the major US newspapers savaged King. Fifteen years later the New York Times was still bitter when the notion of a national holiday honoring the civil rights leader was being pressed–with ultimate success–by labor unions and black groups. “Why not a Martin Luther King Day?” an NYT editorial asked primly. “Dr King, a humble man, would have objected to giving that much importance to any individual. Nor should he be given singular tribute if that demeans other historical black figures.” Give one of them a holiday and they’ll all be wanting one.

Within hours of King’s murder rioting broke out in 80 cities across the country. Dozens of people, mostly black were killed. On April 6 the Oakland cornered the Black Panther leadership and when one of the young leaders, Bobby Hutton, emerged with his shirt off and his hands up, shot him dead. Futher police executions of Panthers followed, most notoriously the killing of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, as they slept, by the Chicago police, with FBI complicity, in December, 1969.

In contrast to Hutton, the Panthers and above all Malcolm X, slain in 1965, white liberal opinion, resentments at the disloyalty of the Riverside Church speech conveniently forgotten, has hailed King as a man who chose to work within the system and who furthermore failed to make any significant dent on business as usual. In his last years King was haunted by a sense of failure. Amid a failed organizing campaign in Chicago he was booed at a mass meting there and, as he lay sleepless that night he wrote later that he knew why: “I had urged them [his fellow blacks ] to have faith in America and in white society They were now booing because they felt were unable to deliver on our promises They were now hostile because they were watching the dream they had so readily accepted turn into a nightmare.” As the radical journalist Andrew Kopkind wrote shortly after King’s assassination, “That he failed to change the system that brutalizes his race is a profound relief to the white majority. As a reward they have now elevated his minor successes into major triumphs.”

Forty years on, America is still disfigured by racial injustice. Militant black leadership has all but disappeared. To black radicals Obama’s sedate homilies and respectful paeans to America’s ladders of advancement available to the industrious are to the fierce demands for justice of Malcolm X and of King in his more radical moments, as Muzak is to Beethoven. Obama is caught, even as King was. The moment whites fear he is raising the political volume, he’s savaged with every bludgeon of convenience, starting with the robust sermons of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose sin is to have reminded whites that there are black Americans who are really angry. “Damn America,” roared the Rev Wright. King was just as rough at Riverside Church in the speech that so terrified the white elites: “I knew that 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.” Honesty of this sort from a black politician in America extorts due retribution.
And an Aside on Eldridge Cleaver

Reading up on the death of Bobby Hutton, and MLK, a few weeks ago I came across Henry Louis Gates Jr’s interview with him for Frontline, from which I recently quoted some lines. I’d been inclined to think of Eldridge Cleaver as a somehat pathetic figure in his later years, after a failed bid in the 1980s to bring the codpiece back into sartorial repute. But Cleaver was a smart fellow who understood that aside most Americans really believe in rebirth. So, amid problems with crack addiction, burglary charges and the rest of it, he sensibly rebirthed himself in the 90s as a Christian and a Republican. He remained as sharp as a tack and essentially a Marxist in political analysis right untl the end, as his interview by Henry Louis Gates for Frontline shows. This must have been done shortly before his death at the age of 62, in 1998. Next time you want to explain Marx’s theory of the reserve army of the unemployed to someone, you could do a lot worse than quote Cleaver here:

GATES: Are you optimistic about the future? I mean given the fact that we have this large black underclass and a large black middle class, it looks like we have two nations and they’re both black.

CLEAVER: We have more nations than that because we have poor white people, we have poor Indians, we have poor — we have got to eliminate the economic basis of the underclass by providing them with jobs not handouts from the federal government. That is the failure of our economic system, that you have economists who say that you’ve got to keep the people on the brink of starvation in order to motivate them to work and hustle around. The failure of the capitalistic economic system is that they did not provide for full employment. They were satisfied with a certain percentile and then they were willing to keep a lot of people perpetually in reserve and that was to keep wages down and all that kind of pressure.

We have got to have a policy of full employment and by restoring the frontier and the union of the western hemisphere it is a full employment program for the whole hemisphere. There’s a lot of work to be done but we have to reorient ourselves from a system of scarcity and a belief system in scarcity and there is no problem that we have on our agenda that we cannot solve.

GATES: But Tupac was a gangster, wasn’t he?

CLEAVER: Huey was a gangster.

GATES: Oh, he was?

CLEAVER: I’m not– I’m talking about a real gangster. Tupac, they were talking about gangster rap. Huey P. Newton was a gun toting gangster, but that’s not all he was. I’m saying he went through that experience as a criminal, but the thing about Tupac was his spirit and his rebellion against oppression. This comes from the way that he was raised and the values that were transmitted to him.
His father died in a gun fight with the New York police department and so Afena was a very strong stalwart of the Black Panther party and Tupac was raised like that. He is what we call a panther cub. And that was what he was about.

And that is why it was such a blow, [Tupac’s] liquidation, and many people think that it was the COINTELPRO that took him out because the story doesn’t hold up because anybody who knows Las Vegas knows that after the Mike Tyson fight there, there is no way that anybody going to drive along upside of another car, shoot them and drive away because it’s gridlocked for blocks around there, man. So that is not what happened. There is more to it than that.

GATES: Eldridge, now, thirty years later, the smoke has cleared, bodies are buried, people have moved on. Was it worth it? I mean was the Panther movement worth it? Was it a good thing?

CLEAVER: It was a good thing and like all things, there was good and bad, but nothing like what this nitwit, Horowitz, is talking about because that is not where we were coming from. And I regret the way that the Party was repressed because it left a lot of unfinished business because we had planned to make a transition to the political arena and we would have been able to transmute that violence and that legacy into legitimate and peaceful channels. As it was they chopped off the head and left the body there armed. That’s why all these young bloods out there now, they’ve got the rhetoric but without the political direction and they’ve got the guns. A man told me in Berkeley, said– ‘Eldridge, the two most dangerous demographics in the Bay Area right now are young black men with guns and middle-aged white women with Volvos.’

GATES: You’re crazy.

CLEAVER: They’re taking out more people than anything else.

GATES: Will history judge you and your contemporaries from the ’60s — Karenga, Rap, Stokely, Angela, the whole gang, Julian Bond — favorably, do you think?

CLEAVER: I think they will. I think they will give us Fs where we deserve them and they’ll give us As where we deserve them and they’re going to give Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver an A plus.






Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.