America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States(2015)
the FAILED ATTEMPTS to ASSASSINATE MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., 1958–1967
On March 31, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the Reverend Wesley Albert Swift each delivered a sermon about the future of America, but rooted in very different ideas about God’s design for humanity.
Dr. King spoke to an audience at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in an oration entitled “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.” King had delivered the speech before, at a commencement at Oberlin College, in Ohio, in 1965. But the civil rights movement and King’s mission had undergone many changes in the intervening three years. At Oberlin, King spoke mainly to the socioeconomic challenges still facing the black underclass. “Remaining awake” in 1965 meant recognizing the need to expand one’s conception of social justice in a world that demanded more compassion with greater urgency. “To rise to our full moral maturity as a nation, we must get rid of segregation whether it is in housing, whether it is a de facto segregation in the public schools, whether it is segregation in public accommodations, or whether it is segregation in the church,” King urged the Oberlin graduates.1
But by 1968, King’s speech had evolved to fit the changing dynamics of a nation in upheaval over economic and racial inequality, a country bitterly divided over the Vietnam War (that King hinted at in 1965 but did not mention by name). In the nation’s capital, King assumed the role of an Old Testament prophet, warning America about God’s judgment if it maintained its current course. “One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done,” King told the crowd at the National Cathedral. “It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, ‘That was not enough . . . you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness.’” King remained convinced that the world would change, quoting, at the beginning of his sermon, from the book of Revelations, Chapter 16: “Behold I make all things new; former things are passed away.” But now he saw “the Great Revolution” as three interlocking revolutions—economic, moral, and military—happening at once. The dangers posed by automation to the working poor, the moral decay stemming from racism, the threat of nuclear conflict as a result of the cold war: They could destroy a nation that, in a metaphor King used to great effect, chose to sleep through these times like Rip Van Winkle. But, King argued, if a courageous people managed the situation correctly, these seemingly intractable developments would finally convince a slumbering society of the promise of a “new day of justice and brotherhood and peace.” King, as was his custom, struck an optimistic note: “We’re going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands.”2
But for all his faith in God’s benevolence, King nonetheless ended his sermon with an explication for divine guidance and with a conditional assertion about the future, in lines not found in the 1965 commencement address: “God grant that we will be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace.”3
If the Reverend King lacked a degree of certainty in the future in 1968, it was not simply because he recognized, like a good student of the book of Genesis, the problems that human free will and temptation presented even to God’s grand designs. As far back as 1965, the growing schism inside the United States and within the civil rights movement had worried King. The nation’s continued unraveling from 1967 through 1968 chastened his expectations for the country even further.
Urban and racial rioting continued to plague the nation in the summer of 1967, a level of domestic disorder not seen since post–Civil War Reconstruction. In Newark, New Jersey, false rumors that a black cab driver had died in police custody sparked four days of rioting from July 12 to July 17, requiring massive intervention by local and state police as well as by the National Guard. The urban combat that commenced resulted in twenty-three dead and 750 injured. Follow-up studies indicated that law enforcement, including the National Guard, had expended 13,319 rounds of ammunition in pursuit of snipers who may not have actually existed.4 A week later, Detroit, Michigan, experienced the single worst urban riot in the history of the nation: After five days of rioting, 43 people were dead, 1,189 were injured, and over 7,000 were arrested. Sandra West, a UPI reporter who had lived her whole life in Detroit, described the chaos:
Sunday I saw sights I never dreamed possible. . . . Raging fires burned out of control for blocks and blocks. Thick black smoke and cinders rained down at times so heavily they blocked out homes as close as 20 feet away.
Looters drove pickup trucks loaded with everything from floor mops to new furniture. Price tags still dangled from the merchandise.5
Riots also struck Birmingham, Chicago, and Milwaukee, among other major cities. In sum, during the “long hot summer” of 1967, the United States experienced 158 different riots, resulting in eighty-three deaths, 2,801 injuries, and 4,627 incidents of arson.6
With national press reports that “guns—hand guns, rifles, shotguns—are selling as though they were about to close down the gun factories,”7 King continued to insist on nonviolence. But in August of 1967, he told a crowd of frustrated young civil rights activists that blacks “still live in the basement of the Great Society.” He observed some months later that a “riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”8
In December 1967, with a renewed sense of purpose, King launched what would be his final mission, the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC): a proposed march of several thousand members of America’s underclass from America’s poorest state (Mississippi) to the nation’s capital. The protestors would camp out on the National Mall. King hoped that if they were arrested, waves of new people would take their place, as they had in Birmingham in the spring of 1963. The goal of this campaign was to scandalize President Lyndon Johnson and the American government into a massive investment in social services, way beyond anything implemented in LBJ’s War on Poverty. King had already burned his bridges with his onetime White House ally, and with the liberal political establishment in general, by openly opposing the Vietnam War, calling America the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence” in 1967.
King’s public opposition to the Vietnam War and his focus on economic justice also alienated him from a large swath of the general public that had openly supported his fight for legal equality in the South prior to 1966. In 1965, when he spoke at Oberlin, King found himself in fourth place on Gallup’s poll of America’s most admired people. But as soon as he began to focus on socioeconomic conditions in northern cities, starting in 1966, public opinion began to shift against him. By the time he gave the sermon at the National Cathedral in March 1968, a majority of white Americans—more than 70 percent—held an unfavorable opinion of Dr. King. More alarming, perhaps to King, was the fact that 57 percent of black Americans considered him to be irrelevant.9 Groups like the Black Panthers and the more radicalized version of SNCC increasingly captured the imagination of a frustrated African American community.
Even King’s longtime nemesis J. Edgar Hoover began to question the civil rights leader’s prominence given the growing influence of black nationalism. Hoover continued to leak negative rumors and innuendo about Dr. King in 1968, but internal documents show that Hoover’s concerns increasingly began to focus on militant black nationalist groups and leaders. A memo dated March 4, 1968, from the director to every FBI field office, raised alarm at the growing civil disorder in America and spoke to the need to “neutralize” a potential black “Messiah” who could trigger “a true black revolution” inside the nation. The document offered three potential candidates: Martin Luther King, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and Stokely Carmichael. But King was not seen as a threat as long as he retained his “‘obedience’ to ‘white liberal doctrines’ (non-violence).” The FBI instead focused its attention on Carmichael as the real danger.10
King spoke to his predicament, a result of taking bold but unpopular stances, in his sermon at the National Cathedral.
On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?
There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.11
Like his reference to God’s judgment, these words had been absent from the 1965 Oberlin commencement speech. In 1968 King knew the price he had paid for challenging “white liberal doctrines.” Indeed, when he preached at the National Cathedral, the potential efficacy of the Poor People’s Campaign looked very much in doubt even as it was set to begin later in April. Financial support remained low, and skepticism persisted about whether or not the march would have the manpower it needed. Dr. King had just visited Mississippi to enlist leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the political group that had emerged as a result of Mississippi Freedom Summer’s 1964 voting drive, for help with grassroots mobilization. Some questioned whether or not the Reverend King, with his waning influence, could hold marchers to a standard of disciplined nonviolence. Would the émigrés to the Mall, they wondered, respond to police coercion in the same way that residents of Detroit and Newark had responded?
In the last week of March 1968, concerns of nonviolence occupied Martin Luther King’s attention above all other matters. At the urging of his friend, the Reverend James Lawson, Dr. King agreed to lend support to the Memphis sanitation workers strike, a labor protest that had been gaining momentum since February. The predominantly black sanitation force in Memphis worked under terrible conditions for low wages. They were expected to dispose of trash in any and all weather conditions. Matters came to a head when two sanitation workers, seeking shelter from the severe weather in their truck, were crushed by its compactor.
King agreed to lead a protest march in support of the laborers, but snow delayed the demonstration until March 28. Events did not go according to plan. Violence erupted, and shops were looted. Police shot and killed a sixteen-year-old protester. Tennessee governor Buford Ellington ordered National Guardsmen to pacify Memphis, and at the urging of his advisors, the Reverend King was forced to leave Memphis unceremoniously. On his own initiative, Dr. King insisted that he had to return to Memphis to lead a peaceful strike, to calm the nation (and supporters) about the prospects of the forthcoming Poor People’s Campaign, and to convince campaign participants that nonviolence was still feasible and desirable. Not long after speaking at the National Cathedral, King returned to Atlanta. He announced on April 1 his plans to return to Memphis. King made his way by plane to Memphis on April 3, but not before a bomb threat delayed his departure.12
No one listening in California to the Reverend Wesley Swift’s sermon on March 31 would have detected that he too had plans for Memphis. In his speech “Power in the Word,” Swift simply echoed themes familiar to his Christian Identity flock. The focus was on the sustenance provided by faith. The end-times, as always, became a major motif. Swift asserted:
We find that in our intelligence and purpose, we have accepted a plan that is in the word of God and we are participating in it. You are not only participating in it, but you accept it and you are working to bring in the kingdom, and these prophecies of God.13
Cycling through several books of the Bible, Swift ended where King began his March 31 oration, with the book of Revelations:
This word of God is for your protection in the hour of emergency. The word of God shall see America thru. And not only is this true, but the children of America have the Faith to believe every word that comes out of the mouth of God. And they believe that it will be fulfilled. This does not eliminate you from defending your home and battling the enemy. But it gives you the capacity to know that those of your household with you will come thru this battle. . . . And we thus understand that the world was made by the Word of God. And we also understand that the new world will also be made by the Words of your mouth. And the children—you and I—shall participate. And we shall have absolute victory.14
The evidence strongly suggests that when the Reverend Wesley Swift assured his followers that the word of God promised them victory in the upcoming battle with the enemy, he knew about and likely endorsed a conspiracy to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, in Memphis. In many ways, such a plot was only the final iteration of a much broader effort to murder the civil rights leader, one that persisted, through many failures, for more than a decade.
From 1958 to 1967, individuals and groups within the Christian Identity social network had plotted and made as many as seven serious attempts on Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. Scholars and congressional investigators have documented most of these attempts on a case-by-case basis, but ignorance about the influence of Christian Identity extremism has blinded them to the common ideological thread connecting each effort: eliminating the most important voice advocating for nonviolence and harmonious relations between the races and in so doing setting the stage for a holy race war. It is very likely that one of the plots, from 1964, evolved into a conspiracy that finally succeeded in killing King on April 4, 1968, in Memphis. Indeed, with each successive attempt, the plotters appeared to have built on tactical elements in earlier plots. This is not surprising, inasmuch as two men, J.B. Stoner and Sam Bowers, likely spearheaded no fewer than six of them. Hence it is valuable to quickly review these seven attempts, with the goal of illuminating the murder on April 4.15
1958: The Stoner Birmingham Bounty
As noted in earlier chapters, the first major effort by a Christian Identity zealot to murder Martin Luther King occurred in 1958. J.B. Stoner offered to have his “boys from Atlanta” come to Birmingham and kill King for a “special bargain price”—per Stoner—of $1,500. Stoner proffered this to undercover police informants as part of a wider effort to kill a number of civil rights figures. Lest there be any doubt as to how serious he was, two of Stoner’s Atlanta associates nearly demolished Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church on June 29, 1958, one week after meeting with the informants. A security guard discovered a smoking five-gallon paint can full of explosives and placed it in the middle of the street; “the ensuing explosion broke windows and shook homes for several blocks.” Already the site of a 1956 bombing, the Bethel Baptist Church, referred to by some as the mother of the civil rights movement in Alabama, included the parsonage for the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a major civil rights leader who, with his friend Martin Luther King Jr., was among the list of bounty targets. Stoner soon realized that he had been the victim of a police sting operation, established in part because local authorities hoped to understand, and stop, the recent spate of bombings against Jewish targets (also plotted by Stoner). But authorities never charged Stoner, because they believed that in requesting that Stoner help them eliminate civil rights officials, even if the goal was to develop charges against the violent bigot, a judge would see the effort as entrapment and throw out the charges.
1963: The Twin Birmingham Attempts
The next two attempts on King’s life also likely involved Stoner. Both plots developed in Birmingham in 1963. The first, discussed earlier, involved the bombing of Dr. King’s room at the Gaston Motel on May 11, 1963, which coincided with the bombing of the home of the civil rights leader’s brother, A.D. King. Both men were fortunate to have stayed late at a meeting, or they could have been killed or injured. Although no one was ever arrested for the attack on the King brothers, internal records from the FBI and from the Birmingham police, as well as histories by people like Diane McWhorter and Gary May, suggest that individuals associated with Eastview Klavern 13 implemented the attacks. As noted in Chapter 4, members of the Eastview Klavern (aka the Cahaba Boys) were closely associated with the National States Rights Party in 1963. Anyone hoping for a racial conflagration, such as Stoner and Ed Fields, would have been impressed with the aftermath of the May attempts on Dr. King’s life. The May bombing, on the heels of a successful effort led by King and Shuttlesworth to force greater racial integration in Birmingham, caused the first major riot in the history of the Steel City.
The second major riot occurred in Birmingham after the September 15 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed four girls. As noted earlier, several Christian Identity radicals had met in Birmingham the day before the bombing. These same men, including retired colonel William Potter Gale, Sidney Crockett Barnes, retired admiral John Crommelin, and Noah Carden, planned to assassinate Martin Luther King with rifle fire when he came to eulogize the four girls. The chosen sniper, Noah Carden, could not get a clear shot on King, according to Barnes. The Reverend Ed King, a civil rights activist from Mississippi who came to lead protests against the bombing, asserts that any additional violence on the part of rioting blacks would have triggered massive retaliation by Alabama law enforcement. While there is no direct evidence that Stoner took part in the King murder plot, all the Christian Identity figures who came to Birmingham were members of Stoner’s National States Rights Party. Informant reports say that Crommelin even stayed with Stoner on September 14. Barnes insisted that the sniper project to murder Dr. King was ongoing through 1964 and that another attempt failed when King did not visit Barnes’s (and Carden’s) hometown of Mobile, as the minister had originally planned and publicized.
1964: The Alpha Plot in Mississippi
If scholars hope to understand the civil rights leader’s murder in 1968, investigating the failed 1964 plot against King is key. We will refer to this plot as the alpha plot, as it becomes the basis for the conspiracy that, evidence suggests, ended with King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. For the sake of clarity, and with a nod to Christian eschatology (the alpha and omega are important symbols for those who believe in an end-times apocalypse), let us refer to the ultimate, successful conspiracy, beginning in 1967, as the omega plot. The alpha plot, described briefly in an earlier chapter, involved an effort by Sam Bowers and the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi to offer another bounty to assassinate King, this time to a professional hit man by the name of Donald Sparks. Due to its significance in the successful assassination of King in 1968 (the omega plot), it is worth exploring in considerable depth.
A 1970 investigation by the attorney general of Kansas16 (supported by FBI documents) established that Sparks belonged to a subgroup of a wider collection of loosely connected criminals, known to historians of crime and known in popular literature (and movies) as the Dixie Mafia. More of a phenomenon than an organization, the so-called Dixie Mafia was known by law enforcement in its early years as the Crossroaders or the traveling criminals. They formed bonds with other criminals, often across state lines, in America’s federal prisons. With the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, and with the growing availability of home phones, it became much easier for criminals with various and complementary skill sets to plot and execute major crimes across state lines. If the prospective monetary haul was sufficiently high, a safecracker, a getaway driver, and a “strong-arm man” who was handy with firearms could help each other score a major robbery. Over time, these men formed loosely knit gangs, concentrated in the Midwest and Southeast. The Dixie Mafia earned a reputation for greed-fueled ruthlessness that surpassed even that of the Sicilian Mafia. By the late 1960s, Mafia dons were outsourcing contract killings to Dixie Mafia hit men like Sparks. According to KKK historian Michael Newton, the “Ku Klux Klan collaborated with the Dixie Mafia on strong-arm work.”17
No scholar detailed the 1964 bounty offer until 2012, when I (with coauthor Larry Hancock) described it with great detail in The Awful Grace of God, a book on the King murder. The details of the alpha plot emerge in a 1965 FBI memo. In it, a man named Herman Wing informs agents in the FBI’s Oklahoma City field office of a $13,000 bounty offer on MLK’s life. The money was fronted by the White Knights to Donald Sparks in 1964.18
Sparks told Wing about this bounty after the two completed a robbery spree in Alabama in 1965. Purportedly, Sparks even visited Mississippi and stayed at a hotel in Jackson, waiting for his money before committing the murder. The murder never occurred, Sparks told Wing, because the White Knights failed to raise the contract money in time. The FBI followed Wing’s lead to Mississippi, where they found important pieces of corroboration. The FBI’s Jackson field office found a local law enforcement officer who confirmed having heard of a similar plot in 1964. Agents also discovered that Sparks (a native of Oklahoma who primarily worked with a Tulsa-based gang in the Great Plains) was known to KKK members in Mississippi. A local KKK member knew his nickname, Two Jumps, a reference to Sparks’s dalliance with competitive rodeo. But the FBI dismissed Wing’s claim because Wing also connected Sparks to the murder of the FBI’s most wanted fugitive, John Dillon. The FBI was convinced that Dillon had been killed in Oklahoma, where his body was found.
Several additional factors cement the 1964 alpha plot as fact. For one thing, a second colleague of Sparks, Kenneth Knight, confirmed the plot independently in 1968. Internal documents from the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation confirm that close associates of Sparks likely did kill Dillon. In fact, one of the last people seen in the company of Dillon was a known associate of Sparks, Leroy McManaman, a native of Kansas. McManaman’s criminal record included arrests and convictions for a multimillion-dollar interstate bootlegging operation, a series of home robberies, and the interstate transportation of stolen cars. McManaman’s activities in the spring of 1964 provide one of the most important sources of corroboration for the alpha plot and, as we shall see, reveal the bridge between the alpha plot and the omega plot.
Like Sparks, McManaman also suddenly showed up in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964. Like Sparks, McManaman was a member of a Dixie Mafia gang based out of Tulsa. Like Sparks, his criminal record shows little or no association with Mississippi. In fact, McManaman violated a federal appeal bond in traveling to Mississippi in 1964. In 1963 a federal jury in Kansas had convicted McManaman for leading an interstate stolen car ring conspiracy with Rubie Charles Jenkins, Sparks’s closest friend. Out on bond, McManaman risked additional prison time if caught on his jaunt to Mississippi.
Yet he stayed there for several weeks at the home of Sybil Eure, a real estate broker who ran her own company from her home in Jackson. Eure would later claim to the FBI that friends (whom she never identified) had introduced her to McManaman, that McManaman (a “big time criminal operator” according to FBI reports) was a real estate guru, and that she had hoped to work with him in real estate in the future. It is very likely, as we shall see, that McManaman was in Jackson to help his friend Sparks in any 1964 attempt on King’s life and that Eure, who admitted to being in financial straits in 1964, had some (perhaps unwitting) connection to the plot. But McManaman lost his appeal and returned to Leavenworth Prison in April 1964. The records show that he maintained an ongoing correspondence with Eure, something that will become significant when we discuss the omega plot from 1967 to 1968.
1965: Attempts in Ohio, Mississippi, and California
Christian Identity fanatics, including Bowers and Stoner, did not give up on their efforts to kill King. A 1965 FBI report cites informants describing a plot by Stoner and National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan leader James Venable to kill King in 1965. Stoner enjoyed a long relationship with Venable going back several years. Among other things, Stoner had shared a law office with Venable in Atlanta for a spell, and Venable represented members of Stoner’s Confederate Underground when they were indicted for bombing the Temple in Atlanta in 1958.
The informants did not discuss details of the Stoner–Venable plot in 1965. But other sources, notably a letter and testimony of a young Ohio racist named Daniel Wagner, suggest the outlines of a conspiracy. Ohio police arrested Wagner in 1965 for carrying explosives across state lines. In custody, and later in testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee (which from 1965 through 1967 led more than three investigations into KKK terrorism), Wagner described an offer made by Ohio KKK Grand Empress Eloise Witte, who wanted him to kill King. Witte connected her offer to a $25,000 bounty on King offered by James Venable.
Witte’s Ohio Klan group fell under the umbrella of Venable’s NKKKK, the second largest KKK group in the nation. According to Wagner, the money was supposed to be used to buy the services of some sort of rifle team, who would open fire on King and his entourage when King came to Ohio in the summer of 1965 to offer the commencement address at Antioch College, the alma mater of his wife, Coretta. The plot fell through when Wagner could not assemble a team in time. In testimony to Congress, an Ohio NSRP member and independent witness, Richard Hannah, confirmed overhearing Witte discuss the plot. It is worth noting that the explosives found in Wagner’s car came from a group of men in Georgia with close ties to Venable. The explosives were meant to blow up police barracks and to destroy buildings belonging to the Nation of Islam, the radical black nationalist group led by Elijah Muhammad. The goal of these explosions, according to Wagner, was to ignite a race war.
The race war agenda suggests the possibility that Venable, like Stoner, had religious allegiances to the Reverend Wesley Swift and the Church of Jesus Christ–Christian. This association is far more difficult to pin down for Venable than it is for Stoner. Unlike Stoner, whose close associations with Swift’s ministers stretched for more than a decade and whose rants against Jews included Christian Identity–type exegeses of the book of Genesis and the genealogy of Jesus, Venable was far less open about his anti-Jewish agenda. Yes, he represented the accused in the bombing of the Atlanta Temple, but other, non-Identity Klansmen harbored resentment toward Jews. Without question, internal documents show that Venable had been talking about killing Martin Luther King as far back as 1961, but that by no means puts someone in the Christian Identity camp. Evidence to be discussed shortly shows that by 1967 Venable and close allies within the National Knights had developed strong ties to Swift and had embraced Swift’s thinking on Jews. But even if Venable did not attempt to kill King out of religious animus in 1965, his coconspirator, Stoner, certainly would have been motivated by religious ideology. Hence it is likely that the 1965 Stoner–Venable Ohio attempt against King fits the pattern of Christian Identity violence since 1958.
Two other attempts on King’s life in 1965 fit that pattern. In one instance, documented in newspapers as well as in FBI documents, a member of the Minutemen, Keith Gilbert, stole hundreds of pounds of dynamite as part of a plot to blow up the Hollywood Palladium. The city of Los Angeles had invited King to speak in February 1965 in honor of his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. An anonymous tip allowed the police to apprehend Gilbert and prevent the attack, a disaster that likely would have killed or injured hundreds of people. Though Gilbert went to prison for his offense, Swift ordained him as a minister in the Church of Jesus Christ–Christian shortly thereafter.
A tip from another informant, Delmar Dennis, stopped yet another effort by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi to assassinate King in 1965. The WKKKKOM plot involved a team of shooters, who would open fire on the Reverend King’s entourage as he passed through Mississippi on his way to lead voting rights protests in Selma, Alabama. If the shooting team failed, the backup plan involved using explosives to destroy a bridge as King’s vehicle crossed it. Dennis’s information, along with pressure on federal authorities from President Johnson, combined to thwart the plan. But Sam Bowers was not through yet.
1966: The Ben Chester White Murder
As described in Chapter 5, Sam Bowers arranged with three prospective White Knights, Ernest Avants, James Lloyd Jones, and Claude Fuller, to lure Martin Luther King Jr. into a death trap in Natchez, Mississippi. The first phase of the plan succeeded with the murder of black farmer Ben Chester White on June 10, 1966. The men selected White mostly as a target of opportunity, but also because he had no substantive connection to the civil rights movement, so his death would seem more senseless than reactionary. Having convinced White to help them find their lost dog, the men lured the farmer into a pickup truck and brought him to a bridge, where they abruptly stopped. Using FBI records and court transcripts (the three men were convicted of murder in 1998), Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi) investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell described the scene four decades later:
Claude Fuller got out of the Chevy, grabbed his rifle and loaded it before going around the car and opening the door where White was. Avants stood beside him.
“All right, Pop,” Fuller told him. “Get out.”
Spotting the rifle, White withered in his seat, bowing his head to pray.
“Get out!” Fuller barked.
“Oh, Lord,” White said, “what have I done to deserve this?”
Fuller answered with his automatic rifle, firing two quick bursts that emptied the gun of all 18 shots.
Fuller then turned to Avants and told him to fire, too.19
The men heaved White’s dead body into the waterway below, and in the days that followed, Sam Bowers waited for the second phase of his plan. White’s body was found on June 12. In previous assassination attempts on the civil rights icon, King’s movements and decisions had confounded the efforts to kill him. If the murderers could dictate King’s movements (rather than the other way around), an ambush would be much more likely to succeed. Anyone studying King’s past behavior would be safe in assuming that a murder like White’s would elicit some appearance by the SCLC leader. King had attended the funeral of Medgar Evers in Jackson in June 1963; he had visited Birmingham to eulogize the four young murder victims three months later; he had visited Mississippi, more than once, to mourn the Neshoba victims and to raise public awareness about the lack of justice in that case. The gruesome nature of White’s death was expected to capture the attention of someone like Dr. King. According to Mitchell:
There were so many injuries that almost any of the bullets could have killed him. Bullets had pulverized his liver and ripped his diaphragm. At least one had carved a gaping hole in the left side of his heart. The aorta, which carried vital blood to the rest of the body, had been torn in many places. There was no question that he bled to death.20
But Bowers had miscalculated in believing that White’s murder would bring King to Natchez. For one thing, another white man had attempted (but failed) to murder James Meredith on June 6. Meredith, famous for integrating Ole Miss, had begun a one-man 220-mile March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, early that morning to inspire African Americans to register to vote. But thirty miles into the march, Meredith had sustained serious injuries when Aubrey Norvell, an unemployed hardware store worker, had struck him with three rifle bullets. King joined several others in taking up Meredith’s mantle, a three-week trek that did not include a detour to protest White’s homicide in Natchez.
The failure to impose some level of external control on King’s movements, itself a tactical evolution designed to aid in the murder of a man whose itinerary changed on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour basis, likely shaped the contours of the omega plan in 1967 and 1968. It should have been clear that any conspiracy to murder King had to be ongoing and flexible. Independently of each other, the men in Swift’s informal network of radical Identity terrorists tried to kill King on a situational basis, if King happened to come to their local region, and then only if he exposed himself to potential harm. It became obvious that the civil rights leader was a moving target, not a fixed one. Thus a better approach was to maintain an ongoing murder conspiracy that could strike at King regardless of which state or region he visited; if an attempt failed in one city, the conspiracy could adjust and try again in another place. But that required a greater level of cooperation between various segments of the Identity movement, something that became more and more evident as 1967 approached.
The attempts on King highlight that Swift’s Identity network included regional hubs: J.B. Stoner and Ed Fields dominated Georgia and Alabama, via the National States Rights Party. Stoner, in turn, could leverage his close association with James Venable to influence events in other states, such as Ohio, through the various state chapters and Klaverns of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Sam Bowers controlled the Mississippi hub by manipulating and exploiting the activities of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. And the most influential hub was in California under the direction of the Reverend Swift and Colonel Gale, through the umbrella of the Christian Defense League. Evidence indicates that beginning in 1967, these hubs increasingly began to tighten their relationships to each other, to strengthen the network.
Prior to 1967, Stoner rarely visited Mississippi; he did not even have NSRP chapters in cities like Meridian and Jackson, two places with relatively high concentrations of violent bigots. But starting in 1967, ostensibly as a legal advisor to the men accused of the Neshoba murders, Stoner made frequent visits to Meridian and Jackson. Senior leaders of the WKKKKOM attempted to form NSRP chapters in both cities and distributed hundreds of copies of The Thunderbolt. That same year, James Venable made several visits to California. Notably, he absorbed the California Knights of the Ku Klux Klan under the umbrella of the NKKKK; the California Knights were directly run by the Reverend William V. Fowler of the Church of Jesus Christ–Christian and were indirectly managed by Swift himself. Venable spoke at the Hollywood Women’s Club, a major meeting place for Swift and the CJCC. By 1967 the mouthpiece of the NKKKK, the Nighthawk, increasingly printed articles with an anti-Semitic focus, indicating that the vector of the Swift–Venable relationship ran both ways.21 The January 1968 edition of the periodical, for instance, announced its purpose to “expose the anti-Christ and their satanical plans for the destruction of the White Race” and “to expose and destroy the careers of all politicians who willfully or through ignorance of brainwashing, support the Atheistic-Jewish-Communist Conspiracy.”22 Another man in Stoner’s southeastern orbit, Identity minister Sidney Barnes, established strong ties with members of the WKKKKOM, eventually moving to Jackson in 1968. When members of the White Knights were not listening to Barnes and his wife, Pauline, as they held court in home Bible studies highlighting the Jewish–communist conspiracy, Mississippi’s bigots could hear the same message on tapes of Swift’s sermons. These recordings became a phenomenon in southern Mississippi, played at so-called Swift parties.
Such sermons, in 1967, increasingly spoke to an imminent racial apocalypse at a time when America experienced its worst episodes of urban rioting. If simply blowing up King’s hotel room in May of 1963 triggered the first riot in the history of Birmingham, killing the minister in 1968 could be expected to ignite a nationwide powder keg of racial tension during an age of social upheaval. In 1963, when King’s push for nonviolence had dominated the ethos of the civil rights movement, America had experienced only eleven riots. After 1965, when the civil rights movement was animated by a spirit of anger and frustration more consistent with the bold defiance of the late Malcolm X, racial violence spiked. Just as the Reverend Swift had predicted, the summer of 1967 exposed a nation that was tearing along the seams of race and class. The urban violence thawed, as it always did, in the cool and cold weather of fall and winter. But nothing changed the underlying dynamics of the country’s racial climate as 1968 approached. In 1963 it had taken the assassination of Medgar Evers to spark a riot in Jackson; by 1967 mere rumors of police brutality could turn Newark, New Jersey, into a virtual war zone. In such an environment, killing King held the promise of creating utter chaos.
It also, more than ever before, offered the possibility that such chaos would trigger the cycle of violent outrage and retaliation predicted by Sam Bowers. When Bowers told Delmar Dennis about his plans to foment racial conflict by instigating a cycle of recrimination and violence between militant blacks and rank-and-file whites, nonviolence permeated the push for black liberation. King was the most outspoken and well-known of a group of leaders who placed their faith in Gandhi’s philosophy and tactics. The group he led, the SCLC, was just one of several grassroots organizations that held training sessions to teach activists how to participate in nonviolent protests. But the situation had changed after the Mississippi Burning murders.
While the prospect of violent resistance had always appealed to pockets of civil rights activists, by 1965 it had moved from the background to the foreground. Militant leaders such as Stokely Carmichael and groups such as the Black Panthers became increasingly popular among liberation activists. Bowers’s vision, which he foretold to his audience on the heels of the Neshoba killings, may not have come to pass in the summer of 1964 in Mississippi. Militant, leftist blacks did not attack white “civilians”; whites did not respond with violent retaliation against blacks; the federal government did not declare martial law in Mississippi or anywhere else. But in 1967, in places like Detroit and cities across the nation, that vision was increasingly becoming a reality.
In that context, King became an even more attractive target to Identity radicals. Of the three men whom the FBI identified as potential “black messiahs,” two—Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammad—openly called for violent resistance to racial and economic oppression, for separation rather than integration. Only one of those listed, Martin Luther King Jr., continued to push for nonviolence; only he held out hope for racial harmony, even though, as he realized, the facts on the ground demanded a much bolder approach to socioeconomic justice.
His commitment to nonviolence may have lost him a measure of influence, but King remained a revered figure for much of the African American community, respected even by those who disagreed with nonviolence as a tactic. Anyone who continued to invest in the prospects of “propaganda of the deed” and who wanted to provoke a race war would have seen the potential in King’s assassination. In the calculus of men like Swift, eliminating King would not only ignite a race war, but it would also remove the only person capable of pacifying the nation once the race war started.
The idea of an impending Armageddon permeated Swift’s sermons, homilies that reached the ears of ardent listeners at Swift parties in Mississippi. Among Swift’s most enthusiastic Mississippi listeners was WKKKKOM member Burris Dunn. Dunn forced his wife and children to listen to Swift’s tapes. According to his ex-wife, Dunn (one of the most active promoters of Stoner’s NSRP outreach in Mississippi) frequently invited his hero, fellow White Knight Sam Bowers, over for dinner, where they discussed Swift’s sermons. She recounted that the conversations often developed into hate-filled tirades against Martin Luther King Jr.23
No one had tried to kill King more often than Bowers. For Bowers, one historian noted, King became “the ultimate prize.” Perhaps the most tactically sophisticated of America’s leading racists, Bowers would be the logical choice to spearhead the final plan to murder King.
Bowers also was famously paranoid about informants—what he and Stoner would call pimps—and with good cause. By 1967 infiltrators and informants were decimating the ranks of the WKKKKOM. If the members of Swift’s network compared notes on King assassination plots, it would become obvious that several attempts had been thwarted by insiders like Delmar Dennis. By the summer of 1967, Bowers began turning to outsiders to perpetrate violence through a newly formed clique known as the Swift Underground. But this group, like many who came before it, focused its attention on arson and demolitions. Shootings took the form of drive-bys at relatively close range. The 1963 Birmingham attempt highlighted the difficulty of such a close-range shooting of King, as the minister was frequently surrounded by an entourage.
A truly flexible plan to kill King would need people willing and able to kill at longer range, professional hit men. Bowers had already developed ties to a group with that kind of skill set: the Dixie Mafia. Someone in the White Knights had approached Donald Sparks as part of the 1964 alpha plot to kill King, but the WKKKKOM could not raise the $13,000 bounty money in time. In 1967, with apparent access to money from James Venable, and with help from many of the Identity radicals involved in previous attempts to kill King, Bowers reached out to criminals with a bounty on King’s life. Thus began the omega plot.