The first trial ever held for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. occurred from November 15 to December 8, 1999 in the Memphis Circuit Court of Judge James E. Swearengen. After hearing seventy witnesses in three and one-half weeks of testimony in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the King family, the twelve jurors (six black and six white) found former Memphis bar-and-grill owner Loyd Jowers guilty of conspiring with "government agencies" to murder Dr. King. At the request of the Kings, whose purpose was not punishment but the truth, the ailing Jowers was fined a symbolic one hundred dollarsto be donated to a Memphis sanitation workers' fund.
This historic trial was so ignored by the media that, apart from the courtroom participants, I was the only person who attended it from beginning to end. What I experienced in that courtroom ranged from inspiration at the courage of the Kings, their lawyer-investigator William F. Pepper, and the witnesses, to amazement at the government's carefully interwoven plot to kill Dr. King. The seriousness with which US intelligence agencies planned the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks eloquently of the threat Kingian nonviolence represented to the powers that be in the spring of 1968.
At the trial, a series of African-American police officers and firefighters testified how each of them had been pulled from duty in the vicinity of King's room at the Lorraine Motel, and how normal security had been withdrawn from Dr. King in the hours preceding his assassination on April 4, 1968. The Memphis police and fire director responsible for this systematic stripping of King's security was the now-deceased Frank Holloman, a retired FBI agent. During his twenty-five years in the FBI, Holloman had served as head of the Memphis field office and as J. Edgar Hoover's appointments secretary.
Eyewitness testimony from King colleagues and neighborhood observers that the assassin's shot had been fired from a heavy growth of bushes directly across from the Lorraine was provided to the Memphis Police Department (MPD) and the FBI immediately after the event. Yet senior Memphis sanitation official Maynard Stiles testified that MPD Inspector Sam Evans ordered him by phone at 7:00 o'clock on the morning after the assassination to assemble a ground crew and cut down those same bushes, thus sanitizing the crime scene.
Loyd Jowers confessed to Dexter King and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young that at his Jim's Grill, whose back door opened onto the dense bushes, he had acted as a conduit for a rifle and a pay-off of $100,000. A man named Raul brought the rifle in a box the day before the murder. (Raul, who had been James Earl Ray's shepherd, was identified in a passport photo by Jowers and six other witnesses. While dying in jail, Ray had identified the same photo as the Raul he knew.)
Jowers said that seconds after the shot, the still smoking rifle was tossed to him through the back door of Jim's Grill by Lt. Earl Clark, the MPD's best marksman, whom Jowers assumed was the triggerman. In his audiotaped confession, Jowers also said that planning meetings for the assassination had been held at Jim's Grill and included Clark (who died in 1987), undercover MPD officer Marrell McCollough (who would be the first person to reach King's body and is now with the CIA), another police officer, and two men he didn't know but believed were federal agents.
A role in the assassination also emerged for the US Army. Carthel Weeden, captain of the fire station across from the Lorraine, testified that he showed two US Amy officers, who indicated they had cameras, to the roof of his station on the morning of King's assassination. Former CIA operative Jack Terrell, a whistle-blower in the Iran-Contra scandal who is now dying in Florida, testified by videotape that his best friend, J.D. Hill, had confessed shortly before his death to having been a member of an Army sniper team assigned, in a contingency plan, to shoot King on April 4 if the shooter in the bushes failed. Douglas Valentine, author of The Phoenix Program (1990) on the CIA's assassination of thousands of Vietnamese villagers, testified about the redeployment of Phoenix veterans to the Sixties antiwar movement and the King assassination in particular. Two of those intelligence officers, corresponding to the men on the fire station roof, had reportedly photographed the man in the bushes shooting King.
Former US Representative Walter Fauntroy testified that "very sophisticated forces" pressured the King investigation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, so that it reached its James Earl Ray-as-lone-assassin conclusion "without having looked at all the evidence." In an interview, Rev. Fauntroy told me that after his retirement from Congress, he learned from HSCA files that in the three weeks prior to the assassination, FBI Director Hoover had held a series of meetings with CIA and military intelligence Phoenix operatives. He also learned that such intelligence agents were present in Memphis on April 4.
When the trial was over, David Morphy, the only juror willing to discuss it publicly, said, "We can look back on it and say that we did change history. But that's not why we did it. It was because there was an overwhelming amount of evidence and just too many odd coincidences."
Perhaps the lesson of the King assassination is that our government understands the power of nonviolence better than we do, or better than we want to. As Rev. James Lawson testified, the background necessary for understanding our greatest prophet's murder by his own government was Dr. King's radical opposition to the Vietnam war and his aborted plans for the Poor People's Campaign. King wanted wave after wave of poor people to engage in massive civil disobedience in the nation's capital until the government faced up to the moral imperative of eradicating poverty.
"I have no doubt," Lawson said, "that the government viewed all this seriously enough to plan his assassination."
Thirty-two years after Memphis, we know that the government that now honors Dr. King with a national holiday also killed him. As will once again become evident when the Justice Department releases the findings of its "limited re-investigation" into King's death, the government is continuing its cover-upjust as it continues to do in the closely related murders of John and Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X.
The faithful in a nonviolent movement that hopes to change the distribution of wealth and power in the USAas Dr. King's vision, if made real, would have done in 1968should be willing to receive the same kind of reward that King did in Memphis. But as each of our religious traditions has affirmed from the beginning, that recurring story of martyrdom ("witness") is one of ultimate transformation and cosmic good news.
Jim Douglass is the author of numerous books, including The Nonviolent Coming of God. His booklet Compassion and the Unspeakable in the Murders of Martin, Malcolm, JFK and RFK is available from FOR for $2.00. Douglass lives in South Birmingham, Alabama.