PETER FROST investigates the assassination of Martin Luther King that happened 55 years ago on April 5 1968
The Deputy Director of the FBI, William C. Sullivan, who led the investigation into the assassination of Martin Luther King, believed that there was a conspiracy to murder the most important leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
In his autobiography published after his death, Sullivan wrote: “I was convinced that James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King, but I doubt if he acted alone…
“Someone, I feel sure, taught Ray how to get a false Canadian passport, how to get out of the country, and how to travel to Europe because he would never have managed it alone.”
The FBI would have been happy for the assassin to live out his time in Britain. To their annoyance it was the Canadian Mounted Police who bought James Earl Ray home to face justice.
Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15 1929. Both his father and grandfather were preachers who had been actively involved in the early civil rights movement.
King graduated in 1948 and entered the Baptist ministry. At college he heard a lecture on Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India.
King studied the ideas of Gandhi, and eventually became convinced that the same methods could be employed by blacks in America.
In December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Parks was arrested and King and his comrades helped organise protests against bus segregation. For thirteen months 17,000 black people in Montgomery boycotted public buses. The boycott ended in victory in December, 1956.
King told the story of the successful Boycott in his book Stride Toward Freedom . The book spelt out King’s views on non-violence and direct action. It was to have a considerable influence on the civil rights movement.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, a small group of black students inspired by King’s book decided to take action themselves.
They sat-in at the segregated restaurant of their local Woolworth’s store. In the days that followed they were joined by other black students until they occupied all the seats in the restaurant.
They were abused and physically assaulted, but following King’s inspiration they did not fight back.
King’s non-violent strategy spread to black students all over the Deep South. This included the activities of the Freedom Riders in their campaign against segregated transport.
Within six months these sit-ins had ended restaurant and lunch-counter segregation in more than two dozen key southern cities.
Student sit-ins were also successful busting segregation in public parks, swimming pools, theatres, churches, libraries, museums and beaches.
King travelled the country making speeches and inspiring people to become involved in the civil rights movement. As well as advocating non-violent student sit-ins, King also urged economic boycotts.
Not all actions were instantly successful. At lunch counters in Birmingham, Alabama, police turned dogs and fire hoses on the demonstrators. King and large number of his supporters, including schoolchildren, were arrested and jailed.
King always stressed the importance of registering to vote. He argued that once all African Americans had the vote they would become an important political force..
In the Deep South considerable pressure was put on blacks not to vote by organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Barack Obama is today’s proof of King’s political wisdom and the failure of the obscene KKK.
Kings radical ideas convinced Robert F. Kennedy that Martin Luther King was closely associated with the American Communist Party and he asked J. Edgar Hoover to get his FBI to dig the dirt on King.
King organised the hugely successful March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King was the final speaker and made his famous I Have a Dream speech. 400,000 people cheered him to the heavens.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act made racial discrimination in public places, such as theatres, restaurants and hotels, illegal.
King now concentrated on achieving a federal voting-rights law. In March 1965 he organised a protest march across Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. The marchers were attacked by state troopers with nightsticks and tear gas.
Although opposed by racist politicians from the Deep South, the Voting Rights Act was passed by huge majority.
On 3rd April, 1967, King made a speech where he outlined the reasons why he was opposed to the Vietnam War.
Many on the left thought that King should challenge Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. King rejected this idea.
Hoover sent the wiretaps of King’s private conversations that took place about him becoming a candidate against Lyndon Johnson. Johnson and Hoover decided something drastic needed to be done.
Hoover believed “King was an instrument of the Communist Party” and posed “a serious threat to the security of the country.”
In June, 1967, Hoover had a meeting to discuss concerns that King might unseat Johnson. Hoover said he thought a final solution was necessary. King must be silenced.
King was in Memphis on 3rd April to prepare for a non-violent march as part of an important and long running industrial dispute. Previous marches had turned violent due to Government and FBI provocation.
That night King made his I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech. It ended with the following prophetic words: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop”.
After the tumultuous meeting King retired to the Lorraine Motel. He stood on the balcony of the motel and a shot rang out. Martin Luther King Jnr. was dead. Hoover’s wish had been granted.
Two months later, James Earl Ray was arrested in London and extradited to the United States. He pleaded guilty to King’s murder and was sent to jail for ninety-nine years.
People close to King were convinced that the government was behind the assassination. King’s great comrade Ralph Abernathy claimed that he had been killed “by someone trained or hired by the FBI and acting under the orders from J. Edgar Hoover”.
The famous Ballad of Joe Hill tells us, “Takes more than guns to kill a man.” Despite that FBI bullet the memory of Martin Luther King Jnr. lives on in the past political victories of black Americans and his inspiration will ignite new struggles and new achievements for years to come.
This article first published in the Morning Star, April 2013