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February 2004 • Vol 4, No. 2 •

The Assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X

By Roland Sheppard

It was the 1968 strike by 1,300 garbage workers that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis. Their wages were so low that a full-time employee could still qualify for welfare. Only white workers were allowed to drive the trucks, while Black workers picked up the trash. Rev. Samuel Kyles, who was with Dr. King when he was killed, said the strike was about dignity as well as salary. “That sign didn’t say freedom, it didn’t say justice, it didn’t say equality. It said, ‘I am a Man,’ because they were treated less than that.”

Over 30 years ago, Malcolm X (1965) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968) were assassinated.

In the case of Malcolm X, several members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of the assassination. In the case of Martin Luther King, one man, James Earl Ray, was convicted of the assassination and sentenced to life in prison. Despite the convictions, ongoing campaigns by the government, police agencies and various authors and pundits to put the assassinations to rest, there have always been many unanswered questions about these murders.

According to a Memphis jury’s verdict on Dec. 8, 1999, in the wrongful death lawsuit of the King family versus Lloyd Jowers “and other unknown co-conspirators,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a conspiracy that included agencies of the United States government. Almost 32 years after King’s murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, l968, a court extended the circle of responsibility for the assassination beyond the late scapegoat James Earl Ray to the U.S. government.

Following the assassinations, in the 1970s, the COINTELPRO’s (the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program) disruption operations by the government against the Civil Rights Movement, the antiwar movement, radicals and socialists became public knowledge. Under COINTELPRO, U.S. spy agencies used informers, agents and agent provocateurs to disrupt these organizations.

One of the stated purposes of this program was to “neutralize” Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Elijah Muhammad in order to prevent the development, in the government’s terms, of a “Black Messiah” who could unite and lead a mass organization of Black Americans in their quest for freedom and economic equality.

A second assassination of these two leaders has been the attempt to distort what they really stood for in their last years of life.

This is a process, described by Lenin in the opening to his book, State and Revolution, “…what, in the course of history, has happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”

As one who was politically active at that time, I believe that it is important to tell the truth about King and Malcolm X to help keep their ideas alive and prevent them from being reduced to “harmless icons.”

Why the government ‘neutralized’ King

From the time of the King assassination, the many inconsistencies in the government’s case—that James Earl Ray was the sole assassin—were well publicized. When COINTELPRO was exposed, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Assassinations, under pressure from these exposures and the Civil Rights Movement, did an “investigation” in 1979 with the purpose of reconfirming the government’s case.

Immediately after it released the report affirming that Ray was the lone assassin, this committee sealed all of the evidence it had in its possession for 50 years—until 2029. Thus, we were left with nothing but the integrity of the committee members to justify their findings—rather than the facts. The only logical reason to keep the files secret is to protect the guilty.

Recently, new facts on this assassination have come to light. On Dec. 8, 1999, a jury awarded Coretta Scott King and her family $100 in damages resulting from a conspiracy to murder her late husband, Martin Luther King. The family insisted that they had sued not for money but to seek the truth.

The suit was initiated by the admission of Lloyd Jowers on national TV in 1993 that he had hired King’s assassin as a favor to an underworld figure—who was a friend. At the conclusion of the trial, Dexter King, Dr. King’s son, said, “After today, we don’t want questions like, ‘Do you believe James Earl Ray killed your father? I’ve been hearing that all my life. No, I don’t, and this is the end of it. This was the most incredible cover-up of the century, and now it has been exposed. Now we can finally move on with our lives.’”

The King family, along with their attorney, William Pepper, plan to lobby historians and elected officials to get the official record of the assassination changed. There have always been many unanswered questions about the assassination of Martin Luther King. From the beginning it has been clear that the FBI was involved to one degree or another.

The FBI leaked the information to the Memphis press that King was going to be staying at a “White hotel” a couple of days prior to his arrival in the city. This forced King to stay at the less secure Lorraine Motel.

The question remains: Why would the government be part of the conspiracy against King? Why would they want him dead?

A key to understanding the government’s motive is that Martin Luther King had a different political perspective at the time of his death than when he made his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. His final speeches and actions reveal that he had begun to view the struggle for equality as an economic struggle and the capitalist economic system as the problem.

In one of his last speeches, given at Stanford University in April 1997, titled “The Other America,” King addressed the problem of the rich and the poor in this country. Instead of his “dream,” he talked about the nightmare of the economic condition of Blacks.

He talked about “work-starved men searching for jobs that did not exist”; about the Black population living on a “lonely island of poverty surrounded by an ocean of material prosperity”; and about living in a “triple ghetto of race, poverty and human misery.”

He explained that after World War II, the unemployment rate between Blacks and whites was equal and that in the years between then and 1967, Black unemployment had become double the rate for white workers. He also spoke about how Black workers made half the wages of White workers.

From his experience when he started his campaign for equality in Chicago and elsewhere in the North, King concluded in this speech that to deal with this problem of the “Two Americas” was “much more difficult than to get rid of legal segregation.” He pointed out that the Northern liberals, who had given moral and financial support to the struggle against Jim Crow, would not give such support to the efforts to end economic segregation.

He also argued against the concept that “people should pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.” In the course of explaining the obstacles that Blacks faced coming into this country that Europeans did not face, he stated, “It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man to pick himself up by his own bootstraps. Black people,” he said, were “impoverished aliens in their own land.”

In this speech, King also opposed the war in Vietnam. He criticized the government for spending hundreds of millions of dollars for war and not for equality. He stated his own goal “to organize and mobilize forces to fight for economic equality.” In his last letter, requesting support for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1968, he wrote:

“It was obdurate government callousness to misery that first stoked the flames of rage and frustration. With unemployment a scourge in Negro ghettos, the government still tinkers with half-hearted measures, refuses still to become an employer of last resort. It asks the business community to solve the problems as though its past failures qualified it for success.”

He also stated this outlook at the SCLC Convention of August 1967:

“We’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. “Who owns this oil? ... Who owns the iron ore? ... Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?”

In another major speech in 1967, King also stated the course that he was planning to take in the fight for economic equality:

“There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen, whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer.

“There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum and livable income for every American family.

“There is nothing, except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities ...

“The coalition of an energized section of labor, Negroes, unemployed and welfare recipients may be the source of power that reshapes economic relationships and ushers in a breakthrough to a new level of social reform.

“The total elimination of poverty, now a practical responsibility, the reality of equality in race relations and other profound structural changes in society may well begin here.”

Dr. King’s words have even more meaning in today’s world. At that time, the stock market was below 1,000 points. Today, it is above 10,000 points—10 times higher—and yet conditions for Blacks are still lower than after World War II.

At the time of their assassinations, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were embarking on a course in opposition to the capitalist system. It is clear from reading and listening to their final speeches that they had both evolved to similar conclusions of capitalism’s role in the maintenance of racism. That is why they were “neutralized.”

Unlike Malcolm X, who never got the opportunity to act upon his convictions, Martin Luther King was organizing a movement to obtain his stated goals when he was assassinated in Memphis. He was in Memphis to build “the coalition of an energized section of labor, Negroes, unemployed and welfare recipients” in support of striking municipal garbage workers.

If such a force had been launched, the whole power of the antiwar and Civil Rights movements in the 1960s could have transformed the labor movement and become “the source of power that reshapes economic relationships and ushers in a breakthrough to a new level of social reform.”

Such a coalition, as King envisioned it 36 years ago, is needed today. The best tribute to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X would be to begin anew to build a movement based on the ideas and the concepts that they had developed at the time of their untimely deaths.

San Francisco Bay View, January 12, 2004





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