America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States(2015)
OUTRAGE and the INVESTIGATION into WHO REALLY KILLED KING
On April 4, 1968, just after 6 PM, a message went out from a Memphis police dispatcher: “We have information that King has been shot at the Lorraine. TAC-10, he has been shot.” An unidentified officer replied: “OK, TAC-10 advising, King has been shot … 6:04.” The conversation continued:
“TAC-11, you want us to pull out?”
“TAC-11, you are to pull out.”
“In the area?”
“A signal Q, A signal Q.”
“King has been shot.”
“All TAC units on the call, you are to form a ring around the Lorraine Motel. You are to form a ring around the Lorraine Motel. No one is to enter or leave.”1
The police had more than just “information” that King had been shot. Police surveillance teams had monitored the civil rights leader’s every movement since King had arrived in the River City on April 3, 1968. Memphis mayor Henry Loeb feared another riot. Cognizant that it lacked the manpower to respond to further civil unrest, local law enforcement formed special response teams, known as police tactical units (TAC), consisting of, according to historian Michael Honey, “three cars, each of which held four men. A commanding officer could order a unit to a location, where they would quickly form a flying wedge and charge down the street.”2
Law enforcement also used African American officers to spy on gatherings of striking sanitation workers. One such officer, Ed Redditt, and his partner, Willie Richmond, formed one of the surveillance teams assigned to observe King from Fire Station 2, across the street from the Lorraine Motel, where King was staying. Labor leaders soon uncovered Redditt as a mole, hence his reassignment to surveillance duty. The mutual distrust between the labor strike proponents and their adversaries in the law enforcement community carried an important implication for April 4: King’s entourage had refused police protection when King arrived in Memphis the day before.
Fire department officials also worried about a riot and assigned their own men to watch King. But the two fire department officials tasked with watching the Lorraine were active in supporting the sanitation workers strike. They clashed with Redditt, who they saw as a turncoat. Redditt arranged for both firemen to be removed from duty on April 4, as they occupied the same space in Fire Station 2. Then strange events also forced Redditt from his post.
The Memphis police received death threats against Redditt, relayed from an aide to Arkansas senator John L. McClellan. According to an informant, radical black nationalists in Mississippi promised to kill Redditt. Reddit’s superior, Lieutenant Eli Arkin, removed Redditt from duty on April 4 as a precaution. The story of the threat, it turned out later, was completely false, leading some to think that the entire affair was part of a wider conspiracy to kill King, to facilitate his murder by stripping the minister of local security. But Redditt did not serve any security function on April 4, and his partner continued to maintain surveillance on King.
A more likely explanation is that McClellan, an ardent segregationist, simply planted a false story as a dirty trick to undermine King, reinforcing an effort by Mayor Loeb to stop King’s April 5 demonstration by way of a federal judge’s injunction. A threat on a police officer could become a pretext to overcome First Amendment challenges by King’s friend and attorney Andrew Young aimed at stopping the injunction. In fact McClellan had pursued similar dirty tricks to undermine the Poor People’s Campaign in the preceding months.3
Surveillance logs of the Lorraine Motel reveal little in the way of activity on the part of King or his entourage on April 4. King spent most of his time inside the room that he shared with his close friend and fellow activist the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, waiting in room 306 to hear the outcome of Young’s legal efforts. The two men formed a formidable duo in their pursuit of civil rights, appealing to different constituencies in the black community through their different preaching styles. King’s oratory style resonated more with highly educated and middle-class black elites, while Abernathy’s “country” delivery style appealed to working-class and rural audiences.
The night before, Abernathy had sensed that his approach was not working with the congregation at the Mason Temple Church and had coaxed King (exhausted from his travels) to the church to deliver what would become “The Mountaintop” speech. The next day, the mood was lighter in the so-called King-Abernathy Suite. When Young returned with news that the injunction had been overturned, King, Abernathy, and others surprised the young attorney. If those surveilling King could see through walls, they would have witnessed King, Abernathy, and Young engaged in a playful pillow fight.
The men spent the rest of April 4 in meetings and answering phone calls, which delayed a visit to the home of a local minister, the Reverend Billy Kyles, for dinner. In the early evening, with Kyles trying to rush King along and with other civil rights leaders waiting in the parking lot, King exited Room 306 and approached the railing of the second floor balcony of the Lorraine. At 6:01 PM a bullet “fractured Dr. King’s jaw, exited the lower part of the face and reentered the body in the neck area… . It then severed numerous vital arteries and fractured the spine in several places, causing severe damage to the spinal column and coming to rest on the left side of the back.” Rushed to Saint Joseph’s Hospital, King was pronounced dead at 7:05 PM.
If Christian Identity radicals had arranged the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. with the goal of igniting a racial holy war, they never came closer to their vision than in the weeks that followed April 4, 1968.
The first signs of the violence that would plague America’s cities in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination began in the place where King had delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech about the promise of racial harmony five years before: Washington, D.C. Upon hearing of the assassination, “in stunned silence and utter disbelief,” a group of young black men, soon joined by Stokely Carmichael, patrolled the Fourteenth and U Street sections of the nation’s capital, first asking and then demanding that local businesses close in honor of Dr. King’s memory. Carmichael’s presence drew a larger crowd, one that grew increasingly angry as the reality of the news settled in. Soon anger turned to violence, but local law enforcement pacified the crowd. Yet this was the calm before the storm in the nation’s capital and in the nation as a whole.4
The civil disorder that followed has not been matched, in intensity or scope, since 1968. By 8 PM riots had broken out. In the course of two weeks they would spread to more than one hundred American cities, the most widespread outbreak of civil disorder in the nation since the Civil War. Time magazine described the situation as a “shock wave of looting and arson” that would, over the next week, lead to thousands of arrests, millions of dollars in damages, and the largest intervention of federal troops on domestic soil since Reconstruction. On April 5, Carmichael called the unrest the “beginning of revolution,” and for a while it seemed that way. Even nonviolent stalwarts like former SNCC leader Julian Bond asserted, “Non-violence was murdered in Memphis.”5
In front of an audience of fifteen hundred people in Cincinnati, an officer for CORE “blamed white Americans for King’s death and urged blacks to retaliate.” In two days, Cincinnati experienced an estimated $3 million in damages. Similar chaos affected approximately 128 cities in twenty-eight states. Dr. Carol E. Dietrich described the devastation in startling numbers:
In Chicago, federal troops and national guardsmen were called to the city to quell the disorders, in which more than 500 persons sustained injuries and approximately 3,000 persons were arrested. At least 162 buildings were reported entirely destroyed by fire, and total property damaged was estimated at $9 million.
In Baltimore, the National Guard and federal troops were called to curb the violence. More than 700 persons were reported injured from April 6 to 9, more than 5,000 arrests were made, and more than 1,000 fires were reported. Gov. Spiro T. Agnew declared a state of emergency and crisis on April 6, calling in 6,000 national guardsmen and the state police to aid the city’s 1,100-man police force.6
The hardest-hit city was Washington, D.C., where the rioting had begun. “The District of Columbia government reported on May 1, 1968 that the April rioting had resulted in 9 deaths, 1,202 injuries, and 6,306 arrests,” Dietrich noted. Swift and Stoner could not have been more pleased that the heart of the “Jew-controlled” government lay smoldering alongside so much of America.
The jubilant reaction by far-right white supremacists was widespread. Along with members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, Stoner famously danced in the streets of Meridian, Mississippi, at the news of King’s murder. According to the FBI, Stoner predicted “the death of Martin Luther King would bring more Negro demonstrations and violence than anything since the Civil War.” Stoner added, “The Black Power niggers will say that non-violence has failed and that violence is the only answer.” The Swift follower “welcomed the riots which are expected to follow” and asserted that the NSRP was “glad to see others encouraging Negroes to protest.”7
Sam Bowers and his colleagues celebrated the onslaught of rioting in America at John’s Restaurant in Laurel, Mississippi (where, on April 3, waitress Myrtis Hendricks had observed mysterious men take a rifle from White Knights lieutenant Deavours Nix and leave in a maroon truck). A low-level White Knight—unidentified in tape recordings—told Jack Nelson in 1969 that Bowers and others expected a race war.
Tommy Tarrants told Nelson, years later, that he celebrated the news of King’s murder while hiding out at a paramilitary training compound run by Swift followers in North Carolina, waiting to launch his guerrilla campaign against the United States.
In Pennsylvania, the Reverend Roy Frankhouser, leader of the Minutemen, defied a city ordinance and marched with white supremacists through the heart of his town. Stoner promised his own marches in May.
Wesley Swift, on an unexplained sabbatical from his routine sermons, nonetheless led a Bible study on April 24, the first one since King’s murder. He commented, “The U.S. News and World Report had pictures of these Negroes looting the stores and coming out laughing. This article said there is no end to the rioting because Negroes are having a ball. They like this … these people shoot one another for excitement. They burn their own houses down just to see the fire. They loot everything. So how can you call them equal to the white man? … For the Negro has taken the place of the Indian as your enemy. The African Negroes are coming in, so the white man is going back to carrying a gun again… . I think everyone should be armed today. The more of this rioting I see, I think you need … weapons.”8
But a closer analysis of the events in Memphis and the reaction of white supremacists in the wake of the assassination suggests that not everything went according to plan or expectation on April 4.
Without question, there clearly was evidence that white supremacists were preparing to kill King in Memphis. Myrtis Hendricks, the waitress at John’s Restaurant, overheard Deavours Nix, Bowers’s friend, “receive a telephone call on his phone which is close to the kitchen. After this call, Nix said, ‘Martin Luther King Jr. is dead.’ This was before the news came over the radio about the murder” [emphasis added]. Congress found additional information suggesting that at John’s Restaurant, a frequent hangout for the WKKKKOM, Sam Bowers in particular shared insider information about a plot in Memphis.9
Additionally, J.B. Stoner’s very presence in Meridian, Mississippi, raises suspicions of foreknowledge. FBI agents who had the radical white supremacist under constant surveillance witnessed Stoner’s celebratory dance. Law enforcement fully expected Stoner to follow his modus operandi—to go to Memphis in a counter-rally against King—and placed him under watch, fearing such rabble-rousing in Memphis. But on April 4, for reasons unknown, Stoner broke type. In fact, the Memphis sanitation workers strike was notable for its utter lack of counter-protests by racist groups.
Unfortunately, rather than consider Stoner’s pattern of establishing an out-of-town alibi in his previous racial crimes, in its investigation into the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (code-named MURKIN), the FBI immediately eliminated Stoner as its number-one suspect because he was in Meridian. In a practice condemned by a later congressional inquiry, the FBI assumed that anyone who wasn’t in Memphis could not have taken part in a conspiracy against King—the same philosophy that allowed it to eliminate everyone from Sam Bowers to Sidney Barnes from consideration as conspirators.
The Jackson field office spent a considerable amount of time trying to verify the whereabouts of KKK members on April 4, looking to see if their cars were in driveways or if the lights in their homes were on. One member had an easy alibi: On the evening of April 4, 1968, Meridian police ticketed Danny Joe Hawkins, a member with Tommy Tarrants of Bowers’s 1968 covert hit squad, for speeding the wrong way down a one-way street.
Yet if Hawkins was attempting to establish some kind of alibi for the murder, assuming he expected it to materialize as it did on April 4, he clearly could have found better ways. For all his jubilation over the riots that followed the King murder, and for all the suspicious activity suggesting that Sam Bowers knew about a Memphis plot in advance, informant reports suggest that the Imperial Wizard did not, at first, like the timing of the death. Something may have been expected in Memphis. But was it the shooting at the Lorraine?
The fact that, according to Donald Nissen, several thousand dollars had exchanged hands between Atlanta and Jackson suggests that something very serious was in play. Such bounties circulated through America’s prisons, including the Missouri State Penitentiary, from whence Ray escaped in April 1967. Yes, some evidence suggests that Ray, a native of Jim Crow St. Louis, harbored racial prejudices consistent with his times and upbringing, but little evidence suggests that racism and politics played a major role in his thinking before 1968. Comments made after the assassination by Ray’s brother, Jerry, to his girlfriend and her landlady—unaware that the two were informing for the FBI—suggest that Ray was responding to the same incentive that always motivated him: money. Asked by the girlfriend “if his brother shot King,” Jerry replied, “I didn’t ask him. If I was in his position and had 18 years to serve and someone offered me a lot of money to kill someone I didn’t like anyhow and get me out of the country, I’d do it.”10
But the actual mechanics of the Memphis assassination suggest an ill-conceived plot—perhaps one put together by Ray at the last minute—that preempted a well-planned assassination by actual contract killers at the behest of white supremacists. Those who think Ray was a complete dupe must maintain the most implausible theory of all. Under the far-fetched scenario offered by Ray’s last attorney, William Pepper, Ray brought a rifle to Memphis to provide to the mysterious Raul, the actual assassin, completely oblivious to the possibility of an assassination. Raul then completed Ray’s setup by having him visit Bessie Brewer’s rooming house on the eve of the murder, killing King in Ray’s absence, and then framing Ray by planting evidence. But in Pepper’s scenario, the puppet master Raul made two huge, critical mistakes in setting up Ray—only to be saved by sheer luck.
First having arranged for Ray to drop off the GameMaster rifle, complete with Ray’s fingerprints on them, Raul elected to use an entirely different (and as yet undiscovered) gun for the actual murder, according to Pepper. The Remington GameMaster that Ray took to Memphis was more than capable of firing the assassination round. But according to Pepper, for reasons that are unclear, Raul used a gun that, if not for the vagaries of ballistics, should have clearly pointed to someone other than James Earl Ray.
Much has been made about the inability of forensic experts to match the King murder slug to the GameMaster that Ray purchased in Birmingham and brought to Memphis, the gun found by law enforcement wrapped in a green blanket outside of Canipe’s Amusements. But ballistics tests showed that the rifle itself was the problem. Normally, the lands and grooves inside a rifle’s barrel etch consistent patterns on a spinning bullet as it is propelled from the gun—patterns that are unique to that rifle. A firearms expert need only fire a test bullet from a suspect’s weapon and compare it under a microscope to a crime-scene bullet to see if the slug came from the gun. But with the GameMaster found in Memphis, forensic experts could not get any two test-fired rounds to match each other, meaning that the lands and grooves of the actual murder slug could not be used for a ballistics comparison. The assassination bullet might have come from the same weapon, but there is no way to know. This aspect of the King murder weapon is anomalous; Raul would have had every reason to think that a bullet could and would be matched to the GameMaster. For that reason, Raul’s actions, per Ray and his defenders, make no sense. Raul manipulated Ray into buying a rifle in Birmingham, fooled Ray into bringing it to Memphis, and took possession of the GameMaster with Ray’s fingerprints on it to frame him. But Raul, under this scenario, decided it would make more sense to use an entirely different gun to assassinate King. Just as he had every reason to (incorrectly) think that the GameMaster would yield a traceable murder bullet, Raul, if he knew anything about rifles, would have known that a different gun would have produced a round that would not match the GameMaster. If this is true, Raul went ahead and planted the GameMaster outside Canipe’s knowing that, within a matter of days, experts would realize that Ray’s weapon was not used in the King murder; ballistics tests, under normal circumstances, would have cleared Ray. So why go through the burden of framing James Earl Ray in the first place? More to the point, why wouldn’t you simply use the GameMaster to kill King in the first place? Raul thus fails Frame-up 101.
Things get worse for the Pepper scenario, as Raul, having carefully managed Ray’s travels with his invisible hand, suddenly decides that it would be wise to let James Earl Ray wander around Memphis on his own accord in the immediate period before and during King’s execution. Unfortunately for Ray, and very fortunately for Raul, Ray did not do anything that could establish a firm alibi. For forty years, none of Ray’s investigators or lawyers ever found a single reliable witness to place Ray outside the rooming house. Raul must have thanked the conspiracy gods that Ray lacked witnesses or receipts to confirm his alibi.
On the other hand, the events in Memphis do not suggest a well-planned conspiracy either, certainly not if Ray was the designated shooter. For one thing, with professional killers available, it seems unlikely that anyone would call on Ray to murder their “ultimate prize,” Martin Luther King Jr. Ray lacked any pedigree as a hit man. A rooming house, furthermore, represents a poor choice for a potential shooting location. No one can guarantee the availability of a room facing the Lorraine, or at least one with a good vantage point. In fact, the room Ray did rent offered a very poor view of Room 306. This likely is what forced Ray (or another assassin) to camp out in the bathroom, per testimony of William Anschutz (a border at the rooming house who testified that the assassin shot from the bathroom window).11 But a rooming house bathroom is also a less-than-desirable shooting location. At any time—including at the moment a shooter is aiming and ready to pull the trigger—someone can knock on the door looking for access to the community toilet or bath.
And a different problem presents itself with the choice of rifle if, as the evidence seems to suggest, someone told Ray to exchange his original purchase for the GameMaster. If the goal was simply to shoot a relatively stationary target from a short distance, one did not need the more expensive and well-reputed GameMaster. Bessie Brewer’s rooming house was just across the street from the Lorraine. If someone told Ray to trade up for the better rifle, the likelihood was that the weapon was meant for a more difficult shot from a longer distance.
The rather haphazard way in which evidence was disposed of at the crime scene also points to a less-than-ideal plan, a last-minute plot formed out of desperation. As a member of the Minutemen confided to the FBI, a professional killer would have used a disassembled rifle, putting the weapon together at the shooting location, firing a shot, and then breaking the gun down so that it could be smuggled out, for instance in a briefcase.12 Here, not only the rifle but numerous other items, including binoculars and hygiene products, were bundled together in a green blanket and left in the entryway of Canipe’s Amusements, not far from Bessie Brewer’s rooming house.
Many have pointed to the bundle as convenient—a too-obvious attempt by conspirators to frame James Earl Ray. But anyone shooting from the bathroom in Bessie Brewer’s rooming house had few good options available to him if he wanted to escape Memphis that day, short of the breakdown scenario described by the Minuteman. Leaving the material in the rooming house would immediately connect the rifle to any missing boarders inside the building, including any fingerprints or identifying information left behind (something even a cautious assassin could not risk). Carrying the bundle to a vehicle would risk discovery and immediate capture at any kind of roadblock dragnet. In many ways, leaving the bundle on the street was the least bad option.
In fact, whether intended or not, the materials in the bundle confused law enforcement for up to three weeks. Items in the bundle were initially linked to what appeared to be three or four different people. The rifle was linked to a Harvey Lowmeyer, who had purchased the weapon in Birmingham. Other items belonged to an Eric S. Galt, and a prison radio was eventually traced to an escaped fugitive from Missouri State Penitentiary: James Earl Ray. Coupled with reports of a potential shooter (who had rented a room under the alias John Willard) fleeing Bessie Brewer’s rooming house, it appeared to the FBI as if they were dealing with a conspiracy of at least three or four people. It took weeks before they connected all the aliases to Ray, in part because authorities had to “unearth” the serial number on the prison radio Ray left in the bundle (he scratched out the numbers and letters to the best of his ability.)
The best explanation for all the facts is a scenario whereby Ray preempts a legitimate plot against King by choosing to parlay his limited role as a scout into a more lucrative role as the actual shooter. He would do this without consulting with the plotters, assuming he even knew who the major players were, and he would do this at the last minute, hence the haphazard execution. Several additional pieces of evidence point in this direction.
First, this explanation helps account for one of the most enduring and perplexing mysteries of April 4: the CB radio broadcast that diverted law enforcement away from Ray’s escape route. As Ray fled from Memphis to Atlanta in his white Ford Mustang, someone led police on a wild goose chase. Some thirty minutes after the King shooting, a CB radio operator named William Austein heard a transmission from a fellow CB operator broadcasting a car chase. Contrary to routine procedure, the broadcaster would not identify himself, but he reported that he was chasing a white Mustang driven by King’s killer, fleeing east on Summer Avenue from Parkway Street. The unknown CB operator wanted to make direct contact with the Memphis police. Austein halted a Memphis police cruiser and relayed periodic reports from the other man’s radio broadcasts to a police officer, who then relayed them to Memphis police headquarters. Lasting for ten minutes, the transmissions reported the chase of the Mustang through multiple turns and through a red light; the individual in the white Mustang even fired shots at the heroic citizen. The final broadcast occurred at 6:48 PM, with reports that the vehicle was heading toward a naval base.
It turns out that the broadcast was a hoax. An investigation never established who perpetrated the fraud, but in reaching out to police, refusing to identify his name, and trying to direct police attention to the northern parts of Memphis, the fake CB broadcaster was attempting to pull police resources away from the southern route that Ray likely used to escape the city.13
Some claim that the timing of the broadcast, more than thirty minutes after the shooting, speaks against this being a conspiratorial act. But the delay might also suggest that the conspirators themselves were caught off guard. If James Earl Ray short-circuited a more elaborate plot against King (perhaps to obtain a larger share of a bounty), he would have placed any conspirator in Memphis in the uncomfortable position of having to guess what had happened. The delay between the crime and the broadcast may well represent the time it took for conspirators to surmise that someone within their plot had literally jumped the gun. Under this speculative scenario, using the CB stunt to shift police attention away from the likely getaway direction might have been a logical, if delayed, maneuver. Conspirators had good reason to fear what a fleeing shooter might tell law enforcement regarding a wider conspiracy, and if the conspirators realized the unexpected shooter was Ray, they may have surmised that he was heading back to Atlanta. The KKK commonly used CB radios to intercept police broadcasts and stymie police investigations, so much so that Congress cited the practice as widespread in a 1966 report. At one point, in its investigation of the MIBURN murders, the FBI was forced to call in help from the Federal Communications Commission to establish a completely independent communications network—one that was immune to CB radio intercepts by the White Knights.
The possibility that Ray preempted a shooting by professional criminals contracted by the White Knights is further suggested by events that occurred not far from the crime scene. One of the earliest reports from Memphis related to suspicious activity at the William Len Hotel, located just a mile from the Lorraine. As they later described to the FBI, hotel employees observed two men acting suspiciously at 12:05 AM on April 5. The two guests had arrived the previous afternoon and looked nervous while waiting to check out at that odd hour. The suspicious men had registered on the afternoon of April 4 as Vincent Walker and Lawrence Rand and had stayed in two separate but nearby rooms. Both men left in a hurry following King’s murder. The FBI was interested in the two men and traced their activities once they left the hotel. One man hailed a cab and asked to go to West Memphis, Arkansas, but some distance into the trip, he insisted that the cab driver turn around and take him to the Memphis airport. The passenger appeared to scout the airport and then told the cabbie to return to the William Len Hotel. Outside, the cabbie met the second man and drove him to the airport. They boarded a flight under the names W. Davis and B. Chidlaw. Their flight departed at 1:50 AM on April 5 and arrived in Houston at 2:50 AM, at which point they took a shuttle and more or less disappeared. The FBI checked the names and addresses on the hotel register, only to find out that they were both aliases. So too were the Davis and Chidlaw names provided at the airport. A fingerprint check revealed no suspects, so the FBI gave up, guessing that these were criminals in town for a separate operation who left because they expected an increased police presence following King’s murder. It is worth noting that Cliff Fuller and Hugh Pruett—two Dixie Mafia gangsters who may have been connected to marks on Ray’s Atlanta map—were last arrested in connection with burglaries in Houston, the last point of departure for “W. Davis” and “B. Chidlaw.” Were Fuller and Pruett—or two other Dixie mobsters—caught off guard by Ray’s unilateral decision to kill King himself?14
Finally, additional evidence for Ray jumping the gun comes from researcher Lamar Waldron. If Waldron’s anonymous source can be trusted, Ray attempted to reach out to conspirators, but again in a haphazard fashion. Having fled Memphis in his white Mustang, Ray phoned Hugh Spake of the Lakeland auto plant. Spake was working on the assembly line, and the call came to a common phone that was available to all workers in the area. The call was likely about money. Calling such a phone at such a time suggests desperation. Coupled with Spake’s reaction—he wasn’t expecting the call—the call suggests that Ray had a general idea about the bounty sponsors but wasn’t in the loop about how to obtain the money. Before long Ray would return to Atlanta, leaving his Mustang at a public-housing parking lot not far from the Lakeland auto plant. Waldron developed further evidence suggesting that Joseph Milteer, the Swift follower who may have syphoned off money for a large King bounty with Spake’s help, found his way to Atlanta in the days following King’s murder.15 Ray’s subsequent activity indicates that he never received any money from anyone. He ultimately fled to Toronto and then to Europe, but he was forced to rob a bank in England to stay afloat. His actions in the years after his capture and conviction in June of 1968 speak to someone “threading the needle,” trying to get out of federal prison while holding out hope of collecting a bounty that he still believed he had earned.
One finds the most convincing evidence tying Ray to a white supremacist plot by examining his associations after the King murder. One must ultimately rely on Ray and his convoluted stories to make sense of his pre-assassination associations, leaving one to speculate as to the truth about his contacts with white supremacists or criminal go-betweens with access to groups like the KKK. But in the immediate aftermath of his capture, and in the decades that followed, Ray insisted on making use of known white supremacists as his legal counsel. That decision makes little or no sense—unless Ray was looking to use these men for some purpose other than simple legal representation.
The use of well-known bigots as attorneys is suspicious for two reasons. First, from 1968 to 1969, when Ray faced trial, it was obvious that to avoid conviction, Ray had to make every effort to distance himself from charges that he had killed King out of racial animus. Yet Ray went out of his way to pursue legal counsel with overt connections to white supremacist groups.
Initially, Ray attempted to elicit the legal services of Percy Quinn of Laurel, Mississippi. Quinn’s only clients were members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, including Sam Bowers himself. Quinn did not even make an effort to secure other clients. Ray’s brother had a great deal of difficulty finding Quinn because the lawyer did not have a storefront office or even a listed telephone number. (It is still unclear who referred Quinn to James Earl Ray or how Ray’s brother, Jerry, found him.) Why Ray would even consider Quinn is itself a mystery, as Quinn’s only recent cases were public failures. Quinn turned Ray down, perhaps for fear of what the link might expose.16
But almost on cue, Ray decided to take on another white supremacist attorney with an even higher profile: J.B. Stoner. Ray’s other attorneys, including Arthur Hanes (himself a Klan attorney, but one with an excellent legal reputation), warned Ray against using Stoner. But Stoner remained one of Ray’s major legal advisors for years and soon employed Ray’s brother, Jerry, as a personal assistant at the NSRP. For two decades, Ray made use of an assortment of racist attorneys, including one neo-Confederate lawyer who commissioned a sculpture to honor KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest.
These decisions become even less forgivable when one realizes that Ray had an assortment of talented investigators and attorneys already assisting his efforts to get out of prison. This group included noted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) attorney Jim Lesar, highly regarded New Left attorney Mark Lane, and diligent investigator Harold Weisberg, a legend in the field of JFK assassination research. Ray had no need for racist attorneys—unless perhaps they served another purpose.
When Congress reinvestigated the King murder in the late 1970s, it considered J.B. Stoner a prime suspect, as it should have. But it encountered a serious obstacle in attempting to investigate Stoner: attorney-client privilege. Because he provided legal services to Ray, Stoner could not be compelled to help or assist the congressional investigation. Ray had graciously waived attorney-client privilege for every one of the many attorneys who had helped his case to that point, except J.B. Stoner.17 Ray spun the “Raul set me up” narrative in hopes of securing a new trial and an eventual acquittal. In the event that he succeeded (or escaped prison, as he did again in the early 1970s—only to be recaptured), Ray needed someone with access to the conspirators to get his bounty money. Was Stoner that man?
The congressional committee that looked into issues like this—the HSCA—investigated Stoner, Bowers, Gale, and other white supremacists as suspects in King’s murder. It uncovered and analyzed some of the leads and failed plots discussed in the past several chapters but missed others. For instance, the committee did not report or was not told (by the FBI) that the Ben Chester White murder was connected to a 1966 King murder plot conceived by Bowers. Additionally, the HSCA never addressed information, provided by Donald Nissen to the FBI in June 1967, describing the King bounty. Moreover, Congress analyzed each murder attempt as a separate, independent conspiracy. It did not understand that the individuals who tried to kill King shared a common bond of religion. It did not explore Christian Identity theology as the driving force behind many different assassination attempts. Unbeknownst to Congress, several of the main suspects identified in previous plots belonged to a subculture of religious zealots, who by the late 1960s had formed a social network bent on fomenting a race war.
Part of this oversight is forgivable in that it stems from the same limited worldview highlighted in this book and held by many—one that either ignores the anti-Jewish dimension to the violence of the 1960s or sees such violence as secular in nature rather than theological in motivation. Moreover, members of this subculture deliberately obscured their religious motivation to maximize their leverage over rank-and-file segregationists within their respective organizations, people who would never accept a radical view of Christianity but who could be manipulated for a common purpose.
But the HSCA had access to witnesses who could or should have challenged the conventional narrative. In 1976, as the committee was forming, a series of articles published by investigative reporter Dan Christensen highlighted the potential role played by Tommy Tarrants and his associates in the King assassination. We now know that Tarrants, having converted from Christian Identity to mainstream evangelical Christianity, was interviewed by Congress as an anonymous source. But it now appears that Christensen’s articles touched off an FBI cover-up that prevented Congress from fully exploring Tarrants’s connections to the King murder, a line of inquiry that might have exposed Tarrants—and not Ray—as the original and intended patsy in the King murder. Such an inquiry would have exposed the Bureau to charges that it could have prevented King’s assassination.
Christensen’s 1976 articles highlighted the importance of information developed by Miami police and FBI informant Willie Somersett in both the Kennedy and King murder investigations.18 The reader will recall Somersett secretly taped conversations with Sidney Barnes in 1964. In these conversations, Barnes described the September 14, 1963, meeting of Swift followers on the eve of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He also taped Swift devotee Joseph Milteer predicting John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, two months before the Dallas murder. In the same tape, Milteer described another plot on Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. In fact, Somersett was one of law enforcement’s most coveted informants on white supremacist activities for years leading up to 1963. His record of cooperation and his access to key racists prompted the Miami Police Department to use Somersett to explore potential leads in the King assassination. Somersett’s tour of the Southeast in the summer of 1968, which brought him into contact with various white supremacists as well as labor leaders (Somersett worked for a labor union), became the focus of Christensen’s series. In one article, Christensen focused on a reunion between Somersett and Barnes in Mobile, Alabama.
Somersett did not record the conversation this time, and Christensen protected the still-living Barnes’s identity, referring to him simply as X, a house painter. But what Barnes told Somersett in 1968 was no less shocking than what he told the informant in 1964. Barnes referred at first to an incident that earned Tarrants national attention two months after King’s murder. In June 1968, Mississippi police ambushed, shot, and wounded Tarrants in a sting operation. Tarrants and his fellow terrorist Kathy Ainsworth were attempting to blow up the home of Rabbi Perry Nussbaum. Neither knew, however, that the men who had encouraged the attack, Alton Wayne and Raymond Roberts, had been turned by the FBI, using private money raised by the Anti-Defamation League. On a cue from an as-yet-unidentified informant in Jackson, Mississippi, law enforcement and the FBI lay in wait for Tarrants. They expected Danny Joe Hawkins to join him, but Hawkins pulled out at the last minute, with Ainsworth taking his place. Research by Jack Nelson makes it clear that the sting had one purpose and one purpose only—to kill Tarrants. Law enforcement’s war against the Klan in Mississippi had reached that point. Instead, Tarrants survived with serious injuries and wound up in prison on a thirty-year sentence for his bombing spree. Ainsworth died in the crossfire, becoming a martyr, which she remains to this day to racists across the country.19
Barnes expressed great alarm to Somersett about the potential for Tarrants to expose white supremacists to legal justice. But then he added something else, as Christensen described in his article:
X says that the car that was used to jam the police cars on relaying messages of the killing of King on Aug. 4 [sic] was a car used by Thomas Tarrants. X says that they have information from the police that Tarrants is talking to the FBI and it looks as if several people may be indicted by the federal government in connection with a bank robbery and murder in the state(s) of Mississippi and Tennessee, including himself, X, who allowed Tarrants to stay at his home a week or ten days after the killing of Martin Luther King.20
What Christensen did not know was that this was not the only report placing Tarrants in Memphis on April 4. Independently, Somersett reported to the FBI on a separate visit that he made that summer: to the grieving mother of Kathy Ainsworth, Margaret Capomacchia. Capomacchia also told Somersett that Tarrants—as well as several other White Knights—had participated in a conspiracy on King’s life. She reinforced the story that Tarrants had participated in the CB radio diversion and that he had fled to Sidney Barnes’s mobile home before escaping to a Christian Identity stronghold in North Carolina.21 The FBI investigated the whereabouts of several of the people Capomacchia named in connection with the plot and concluded that most or all had alibis for April 4. The Bureau dismissed the story. But just as the Miami Police Department appeared to lack corroboration from Capomacchia, the FBI may never have learned about the information from Barnes.
As it turned out, both Barnes and Capomacchia may have been using Somersett to plant false stories, for whatever reason, to sully Tarrants’s reputation. The two were very close. And the record makes it clear that by 1968, those in white supremacist circles had “made” Somersett and were using the informant, unwittingly, to send disinformation to law enforcement. J.B. Stoner circulated such speculation as early as 1962, and records make it clear that when the FBI followed up on Somersett’s surreptitious taping of Barnes in 1964, it ruined Somersett’s cover. Not surprisingly, by 1965 Somersett had begun to provide increasingly unreliable information to the FBI, to the point where the FBI ceased using him as a source (though the Miami Police Department continued to trust Somersett). That Barnes would call Somersett and invite him to Mobile clearly points to another disinformation campaign; the decision by Capomacchia to invite Somersett to speak with her in Miami soon after his visit to Barnes only reinforces that impression.
The FBI did not buy Capomacchia’s story (and never learned about Barnes’s similar tale), but it may have had other motives in ignoring the Tarrants lead. For one thing, the FBI does not appear to have even interviewed Tarrants about the allegation. Nor did it make any effort to retrace other leads on Tarrants—equally as tantalizing—in it own files, from earlier in the MURKIN investigation. For example, on April 5, 1968, with the investigation just starting, the FBI did something inexplicable given what we know about the information available to it at the time. Having traced the GameMaster rifle in the green blanket to a gun store in Alabama, the agents showed a handful of pictures—including one of Tommy Tarrants—to staffers at the store.22 The problem with this, as noted by former Jackson FBI agent Jim Ingram, was that on April 5, 1968, Tommy Tarrants was not on “our radar.”23 The bombings in Mississippi for which Tarrants would soon become famous had not yet been linked to any individual; the perpetrator was simply known as The Man. The FBI connected Tarrants only to the wave of violence against black and Jewish targets at the end of May 1968.
One need only consider the individuals whose pictures were not shown at the gun store on April 5 to fully understand the oddness of this investigative effort. It took days before the FBI showed a picture of Byron de la Beckwith, the man it firmly believed had assassinated Medgar Evers in 1963, at the gun store. Agents did not show pictures of Jimmy George Robinson, a Birmingham-based NSRP member who had assaulted King in 1965, for another week.24Indeed, virtually all of the Cahaba Boys, directly responsible for the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963, remained at large in Birmingham—and none of their pictures were shown at the gun store. Yet the FBI showed Tarrants’s picture right away, when at that point Tarrants was only a fugitive from Mobile on an illegal firearms charge.
As it turns out, the gun store incident was not even the earliest sign of the FBI’s suspicions of Tarrants. The Mobile Field Office removed one of its agents, Gerard Robinson, from his normal assignment routine to visit Tarrants’s Alabama home on the evening of April 4. In an interview with the author, the agent remembered the odd nature of the request: He was asked, in violation of strict FBI protocol, to visit Tarrants’s residence without his partner. Robinson can’t recall another solo visit in his career, and he still does not know why his superiors sent him to Tarrants’s residence alone.25 Furthermore, additional records—in the files of Wesley Swift but not in the FBI’s MURKIN files—show that the FBI’s Los Angeles field office continued to show pictures of Tarrants in California, again on the possibility that Tarrants was the man who used the alias Eric Galt.26 The reasons for Robinson’s visit, and the reasons for showing Tarrants’s picture in the days that followed, are not evident in any available records.
A full search of all MLK records by the National Archives and Research Administration failed to reveal anything justifying the early interest in Tarrants. The author’s FOIA request for the Mobile Field Office file from which the Tarrants pictures came revealed that this specific file had been destroyed by the FBI in November 1977,27 at the height of Congress’s renewed inquiry into the case, a year after senior FBI officials had forbidden field offices to destroy any record related to the King crime.28 Tarrants admits that he became a witness for the new investigation, and the record makes it obvious that he was one of two anonymous sources cited by Congress in its final report on the King murder. To destroy a record of a living individual, much less one who was important to a congressional investigation, defies federal regulations.
The file destruction occurred one year after Christensen published his article linking Tarrants to the King murder, a piece that raised questions about other Floridians—notably former Miami native Joseph Milteer—and their connections to the crime. As it turns out, the FBI told researcher Ernie Lazar that it had also destroyed its field office file on Joseph Milteer, also in 1977. In fact, the FBI told the author that it had also destroyed the Miami MURKIN file—or at least elements of it—at the same time, in 1977, although this is presently unresolved, as the National Archives claims to have some, and possibly all of the Miami file. In short, it appears that the FBI was removing records that would cast doubt on Tarrants at the very moment that it was vouching for the recently released Tarrants as a source to Congress. What explains the FBI’s early interest in Tarrants and its decision to hide that interest from congressional investigators? The answer may have less to do with Tarrants than with a much more valuable secret the FBI was protecting, and continues to protect to this day.
Of course, there was a very good reason for the FBI to hunt for Tommy Tarrants in connection with the King assassination, but it is a reason the FBI should not have been privy to if the available records are complete. Tarrants’s own account has him visiting Wesley Swift two weeks before the King murder. There he obtained a rifle with the express purpose of killing Martin Luther King Jr. Tarrants then went underground as part of a guerrilla campaign against the government. Nothing in the records suggests that the FBI knew this information before June of 1968. Yet, if the FBI did somehow know about Tarrants’s visit with Swift, it would go a long way toward explaining the Bureau’s early fascination with Tarrants as a suspect in the King murder. Perhaps the absence of these records is deliberate. For it now appears that the FBI had developed a source who could have informed agents about the Tarrants-Swift episode and warned them about Tarrants’s plan to launch a guerrilla campaign. But, as this book alludes to in earlier chapters, the FBI remains reluctant to disclose sources and methods, even decades after an informant was utilized and even after the informant’s death. The likely source for the information may well have been one of the FBI’s all-time most valuable informants: Sam Bowers’s successor, L.E. Matthews.
This book is the first to suggest that Matthews worked as a deep-cover source for the FBI. But the author is not the only person to believe this to be the case. Award-winning investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, one of the leading experts on the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, also believes that Matthews was an informant. Several different pieces of information support this contention. First, despite his being the head of the WKKKKOM, and despite the fact that he was the chief bomb maker for the group in the years before 1968, Matthews was never once charged or indicted for any crime by federal law enforcement after 1968. One could pass this fact off as simply good luck or skillful evasion on the part of Matthews, but that explanation does not hold water. When the FBI finally convicted Byron de la Beckwith, in the early 1970s, for conspiracy to bomb the New Orleans office of Jewish lawyer Al Binder, the main evidence against Beckwith was the testimony of law enforcement agents who saw L.E. Matthews provide Beckwith with a bomb (uncovered in Beckwith’s trunk, according to the state). But even though the FBI arrested and convicted Beckwith for the crime, nothing happened to Matthews, the head of one of the FBI’s most despised racist organizations.29 Indeed, Matthews’s tenure as head of the WKKKKOM from the late 1960s through the 1970s was remarkable for the sheer lack of violence perpetrated by his group. Once considered the most violent white supremacist organization in the country, the group did almost nothing while Sam Bowers remained behind bars.
But more than anything, it is what we do not have on Matthews that cinches the case that he was an informant. When Congress reinvestigated the King murder, and included among its host of suspects J.B. Stoner, Sam Bowers, and Sidney Barnes, the obvious person to call as a witness was Matthews, who was associated with all of these individuals. But the available record—the final report from Congress—makes no mention of Matthews. It does, however, refer to two unnamed informants with intimate connections to all parties whose identities the FBI wanted to protect. We now know that Tarrants was one of these individuals. It seems likely that Matthews was the other.
Failed attempts to verify the identity of this second informant ironically corroborate this hypothesis. The sheer lack of material on Matthews is too suspicious. When the author requested Matthews’s file by way of FOIA, the FBI provided him with five total pages of material, two of them duplicates and all of them from 1983.30 It is worth noting that files on individuals of similar significance run into thousands of pages. Deavours Nix, who ranked below Matthews in the WKKKKOM, has an eleven-thousand-page FBI headquarter file. Tarrants’s file is of similar length. When he asked if the FBI had destroyed Matthews’s records or transferred them to the National Archives, the author was told no. According to leading FOIA attorneys, the FBI often simply pretends that highly confidential and sensitive material does not exist rather than provide it to citizens in a FOIA request. The FBI is under no obligation for full disclosure in response to FOIA requests when national security—or sources and methods—are at stake. Process of elimination shows that either the FBI had an unbelievable lack of interest in a key KKK figure or that it continues to withhold information on Matthews, a practice almost always reserved for its most valued informants.
If Matthews was an FBI informant, it raises an alarming possibility for the King assassination investigation. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Matthews himself could have participated, in some way, in plotting the assassination. Recall that in March of 1968, Matthews offered his home to Eugene Mansfield, the former Grand Dragon who, suddenly and without warning, quit his job in Louisiana and moved in with Matthews. The records show Matthews discussing a hit with Mansfield that month, and law enforcement could not find Mansfield on April 4.
At the same time, FBI records show that Matthews was in and out of his hometown in Mississippi, working on some vague out-of-state project in the month before King’s killing. Records also show that Matthews frequented John’s Restaurant; he might fit the description of one of the suspicious men that Myrtis Hendricks saw interacting with Nix and Bowers.
The possibility also exists that Matthews engaged in such plotting to curry favor with Bowers, with the knowledge of someone inside the FBI. (Informants, especially at that high level, are often kept secret, even from FBI agents in the same field office.) If so, the FBI and Matthews may have found themselves in a complicated but not unfamiliar position as the plot against King unfolded. Their paradoxical challenge was to figure out how to protect an informant while preventing a major act of domestic terrorism. The temptation is to wait until other witnesses and evidence can be used to stop the crime without compromising new sources and methods. Often, even a low-level criminal can become the basis for implicating higher officials in a plot, until ultimately law enforcement rolls up an entire organization. But then timing becomes key. Act too early and the criminal case may not be solid enough to convict senior members of an organization. Act too late and the crime may well come to pass. The latter leaves the government with the unenviable choice between explaining why it did not prevent a major act of terrorism, and covering up its unintentional complicity and never admitting it to the public.
I already suggested something along those lines when discussing the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In Chapter 13 I offer a similar scenario for the 1995 terrorist attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. If the FBI learned of a potential King plot from L.E. Matthews and failed to act in time to prevent the assassination, this would go a long way in explaining the Bureau’s behavior after April 4.
This explanation starts with its handling of Donald Nissen, the fugitive who left his family and a steady job in Atlanta after having been threatened, in December of 1967, for revealing what he knew about a White Knights bounty offer. The FBI’s initial investigation into Nissen’s claims may well reflect genuine limitations in terms of data-mining capabilities. Larry Hancock and I were able to connect the 1967 bounty offer (from McManaman) on King to the 1964 bounty on King (offered to McManaman’s colleague Donald Sparks) only with the help of database technology and the Internet. Similarly, the superficial investigation of Sybil Eure, the woman who appears to have been a cutout for the bounty plot, could easily be attributed to antiquated perceptions about women and violence. But the follow-up investigation into Nissen’s claims, after the FBI realized that he had jumped his parole, is harder to understand and more open to less forgiving explanations.
Upon discovering that Nissen had gone AWOL, the FBI reinvestigated his claims about a White Knights bounty. In May 1968, it returned to Jackson, Mississippi, to interview Sybil Eure, the go-between who received the package containing bounty money from Nissen in the summer of 1967. Eure’s memory improved upon the second visit. Unlike her August 1967 interview with the FBI, Eure now remembered a story about a $100,000 bounty on Martin Luther King’s life. It was all a joke, she claimed. Eure explained that in the spring of 1964, while short on cash and developing a professional relationship with McManaman (whom she identified as a real estate guru), she had seen TV reports linking the Mississippi Burning murders to Neshoba sheriff Lawrence Rainey. She had joked with McManaman that she could get $100,000 from Rainey if they promised to kill Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps, as it had in 1967, the FBI did not think a woman was capable of participating in a Klan-connected murder conspiracy; the agents once again seemed to take Eure at her word.31 But in May of 1968, that decision was harder to justify.
For one thing, Leroy McManaman was already back in Leavenworth Penitentiary in the spring of 1964, when the three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi. Plus, the FBI did not connect Rainey to the Neshoba murders and to the KKK until August of 1964. In other words, Eure could never have been watching TV news reports about the Neshoba murders in April of 1964; she couldn’t have made her supposed joke about a King bounty because she wouldn’t have been in McManaman’s company when the Neshoba murders occurred later that summer. One might be apt to forgive this oversight by the FBI save for one thing: Just a few months before interviewing Eure for a second time, federal prosecutors finally convicted several individuals, including Rainey and Sam Bowers, for plotting the Neshoba murders. The Jackson field office helped lead the effort to ensure the prosecution. It is hard to imagine that the FBI could have failed to see the major problem in the timing of events narrated by Eure.
The FBI missed other problems too. Eure took care to paint her relationship with McManaman as a professional one. But the FBI knew that McManaman identified Eure as the woman he intended to marry when he was released from Leavenworth Penitentiary. Moreover, no one communicated more with McManaman, by way of letters and visits, than Eure. This situation presented the FBI with a logical follow-up question for Eure: Why would McManaman refer Nissen to Eure for something as bold as a bounty offer on Martin Luther King Jr.’s life if it were all a joke? Even if he were simply gullible, McManaman would want to confirm details with Eure, who then would have let him in on the joke. But he instead told another criminal to visit her as part of a plot against King. The FBI never even bothered to find out the details of how and why a career criminal like McManaman was introduced to Eure in the first place. But the FBI did not subject Eure to a thorough interrogation.
Nissen eventually turned himself into the FBI at the end of July 1968. He specifically asked to turn himself into Special Agent Wayne Mack from the FBI field office in Phoenix, Arizona, the state where Nissen spent much of his early adulthood. Mack and Nissen developed a collegial relationship despite being on opposite sides of the law. In St. Louis, where Mack had detoured from a flight for in-service training in Washington, D.C., Nissen reiterated his account of McManaman’s bounty offer to Mack. But he also added details of the threat outside the parole office, and in interviews with me, Nissen insisted that he told Mack about the Floyd Ayers money-package to Jackson. No record of that story exists in FBI files detailing Nissen’s follow-up interview by Mack. Perhaps Nissen’s memory of telling the FBI about Ayers, forty years after the fact, is confused. Perhaps Mack deliberately left those details out of Nissen’s story to protect Nissen from potential charges of complicity in the King murder. Or perhaps the files have been sanitized.
Had the FBI looked deep within its files, it would have learned that Floyd Ayers had also been trying to get its attention too. For reasons that are not clear, in the week after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Floyd Ayers infiltrated King’s funeral under false pretenses, attempted an apparent kidnapping of Martin Luther King Sr., and showed up at the White House gates insisting on seeing the president. The Secret Service and the FBI dismissed Ayers as mentally disturbed, and records provide no details of what Ayers told them in interviews.32
Without question, Ayers was at best flamboyant and was possibly mentally impaired. But the FBI knew something else about Ayers. Before he infiltrated King’s funeral, before the FBI even found James Earl Ray’s Mustang in Atlanta, Georgia, police had suggested Ayers as one of their earliest suspects in the King murder. Not only did Ayers work for KKK leader James Venable, but Georgia law enforcement could not account for his whereabouts on April 4. The FBI dismissed Ayers as a suspect because it could not match his fingerprints to prints recovered at the crime scene. But within two weeks of clearing Ayers in April, the FBI received additional reports casting suspicion on the eccentric salesman.33 Two witnesses said that Ayers had been referring to King’s eventual murder in the months leading up to April 4.
If the FBI eliminated mention of the Ayers story from Nissen’s account, this would be consistent with its general apathy toward Nissen’s story as of August 1968. Agents did not even interview Leroy McManaman until September of 1968. At that point, McManaman predictably denied any connection to the King murder and denied having any interaction whatsoever with Donald Nissen. The FBI never followed up by confronting McManaman with records showing that the two men had in fact worked together in Leavenworth’s shoe factory. More difficult to understand, the FBI did not bother to ask McManaman how, if Nissen had never known him and never spoken with him, Nissen could provide the FBI with the name of the woman McManaman intended to marry and where she lived and worked in Mississippi. The FBI instead closed the book on Nissen’s case.
In fact, as of August 1968, the FBI had three separate threads of evidence pointing to a White Knights bounty offer as motivating Dr. King’s murder: the Nissen story, which predated the King assassination; the accounts from Capomacchia and Barnes implicating Tarrants; and the reports from Jerry Ray, James’s brother, to informants speaking about a bounty offer. Together these pieces of evidence cried out for a renewed interest in the White Knights and white supremacists as conspirators in the King assassination.
But there are no signs of a renewed investigation after the interview with McManaman in September of 1968. James Earl Ray had been captured and by the spring of 1969 had confessed to a judge and been sent to prison on a ninety-nine-year sentence. But the alarming fact is that when Ray’s later protests of innocence led to a renewed congressional investigation in 1976 (after Christensen’s article raised hackles at the FBI and intrigued investigators for the HSCA), the response by the FBI appears to be a cover-up, including the destruction of files and the use of FBI-legitimated sources to shift blame away from white supremacists. At least one of the sources claimed to Congress that men like Barnes were not dangerous—something contradicted by FBI records—and that the White Knights would never work across state lines—something contradicted by Beckwith’s attempt to blow up Al Binder’s office in New Orleans. Congress relied so heavily on these sources that it did not even bother to interview Sam Bowers, then in prison. The HSCA forced even hardened Mafia dons to testify on the JFK assassination, but it did not demand that Sidney Barnes testify before investigators when the white supremacist refused to cooperate. The FBI did not emphasize Nissen’s story to Congress, and Congress never even approached him.
All of this highlights the alarming possibility that the FBI not only failed to stop King’s murder but also failed to fully resolve it after the fact—even though it had the resources to potentially do both. If the FBI was protecting L.E. Matthews, this would not be the first time that sources and methods, and the desire to protect the Bureau’s reputation, trumped the imperative for justice.
But an additional and just as disquieting possibility emerges from the events surrounding the King assassination and what they mean to the study of America’s domestic, religious terrorism. The uncomfortable reality may be that the very sources (deep-cover informants and constitutionally dubious wiretaps) and methods (including violence) that the FBI used with white supremacists groups, and hid at all costs, prevented a much wider racial conflagration in the months and years following King’s murder. Yet even if the ends somehow justified the means in the short term, the failure by law enforcement to more thoroughly investigate the motives of the groups it had infiltrated allowed said groups, during the lull in religiously motivated terrorism in the 1970s, to evolve in ways that would have enormous implications for homegrown terror by the 1980s.