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Ray trial might reveal shameful secrets


Seeds of resurrection.

I am in the Memphis, Tenn., courtroom of Judge Joe Brown on Feb. 20 watching an amazing scene. The judge is peering down from his bench at Coretta King, as she appeals on behalf of her family for a trial for James Earl Ray, who has spent 29 years in prison for the murder of her husband.

She says, "This has been a very difficult process, but we feel that taking this action is absolutely necessary. Indeed, a trial for Mr. Ray is our last hope to reveal the truth about my husband's assassination and bring about at least some sense of closure to the pain we have endured as a family over unanswered questions surrounding this tragedy."

She concludes, looking up at the judge, "For the sake of healing and reconciliation, I appeal to you on behalf of the King family as well as millions of Americans concerned about truth and justice in this case to expeditiously set and conduct a trial for Mr. James Earl Ray."

Coretta King is followed as a witness by her son Dexter, who bears a strong resemblance to his father. He, too, appeals for a trial for James Earl Ray -- "for healing, reconciliation and closure."

It is clear the Kings do not believe that James Earl Ray was the lone killer the government claims he was, nor -- on the issue of this particular hearing -- that he even fired the rifle. They have been persuaded by William F. Pepper, Ray's attorney and once an associate of Dr. King, that Ray was probably a patsy for U.S. intelligence agencies that coordinated the murder.

Pepper is the author of Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King (Carroll and Graf, 1995). His 500-page book is the most complete picture we have of any of the 1960s assassinations, claiming the involvement in King's murder of Memphis police, organized crime, a U.S. army sniper team and -- supervising these players -- military and civilian intelligence agencies.

The Kings have now become allies with Pepper and the Ray family: both the publicly identified assassin, James, who is dying in his Nashville prison from liver disease, and his brother, Jerry, a plain-spoken 68-year-old security guard. In the courtroom Jerry sits right behind Coretta and Dexter King. Between testimony, Dexter King and Jerry Ray talk quietly.

After hearing three hours of testimony by ballistics experts and the King family's appeal, Judge Brown rules that new technology could determine if Ray's rifle killed Dr. King. His ruling must now be reviewed by a state appeals court before the rifle can be tested. If the rifle is ruled out as the murder weapon, it will pave the way for a trial.

Dexter King, William Pepper, Jerry Ray and civil rights leaders James Lawson and Joseph Lowery hold a news conference after the hearing. They express their satisfaction that James Earl Ray is now farther along the road to a trial. Jerry says everyone's support has meant much to James in prison.

The fitting end to this remarkable day comes when Dexter King and Jerry Ray say goodbye, both promising to stay in touch. Jerry says earnestly, "Tell your mother how much I admire her. ... I want her to teach me how to talk as good as she does." Dexter smiles and says he will.

Do these new allies -- the black, upper-class son of the martyr, and the white, working-class brother of the accused assassin -- represent the beloved community for whom Martin Luther King gave his life? Have the forces that killed King inadvertently created new life?

Seeds of resurrection.

In the year leading up to his death, Martin Luther King paved the way for a nonviolent revolution that could restructure our whole society and world. Now is the time to realize that revolution.

According to Pepper, King, who died April 4, 1968, may have set in motion the events that led to his assassination when he delivered his famous speech against the Vietnam War at New York's Riverside Church exactly one year earlier. In that speech he identified "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" as "my own government." J. Edgar Hoover then wrote to President Lyndon Johnson that it was clear King was "an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation."

The perception by government leaders that Martin Luther King was their worst domestic enemy deepened from mid-1967 on, as King announced plans for a Poor People's Campaign in Washington. An interracial army of poor people would have come together in the nation's capital in late April 1968. They would engage in wave after wave of mass civil disobedience until Congress passed a comprehensive antipoverty bill. The absolute minimum in legislation, King told reporters, was a full-employment commitment, a guaranteed annual income, and a half million units of low-cost housing per year.

The intelligence community also knew, from listening electronically to King's every word, that he had an even broader vision of the Poor People's Campaign. With the Vietnam War at its peak in the spring of 1968, King told his staff, "After we get [to Washington] and stay a few days, [we'll] call the peace movement in, and let them go on the other side of the Potomac and try to close down the Pentagon."

Policymakers feared King would succeed in bringing the nation's capital to a crunching halt until they made a commitment to eliminate poverty in the United States and stop the Vietnam War. The dreamer of 1963 had become the nightmare of 1968 to the White House and the Pentagon.

In January 1968, according to William Pepper and my own research, CIA and FBI agents offered $1 million to mob leader Carlo Gambino in Apalachin, N.Y., for the killing of Martin Luther King.

When Gambino refused the offer, the agents indicated it would be placed elsewhere. This remarkable information was revealed in a written statement and on a 1989 BBC documentary by Myron Billett, a Chicago mob member who attended the meeting.

Myron Billett's best friend during the last decade of his life was the Rev. Maurice McCracken, a revered peace activist in Cincinnati. McCracken told me he met Billett on a pastoral visit while Billett was serving a term in Ohio State Penitentiary. McCracken baptized Billett after he was released from prison for health reasons. Billett lived his final years, dying of emphysema, deepening in his faith and repenting his mob past by speaking out about it. McCracken says Myron Billett was unburdening his conscience before God by revealing the CIA-FBI offer to kill King.

Pepper writes that on the weekend of March 15, 1968, Frank Liberto, a Memphis produce man and gangster, hired Loyd Jowers, owner of Jim's Grill, to assist in King's assassination. Jowers confessed his involvement in the plot on "Prime Time Live" in December 1993 after he learned that Pepper's witnesses for James Earl Ray were ready to implicate Jowers before a Tennessee grand jury. The witnesses were never called to testify.

Jowers said he was told that the sniper's lair was to be in the brush area behind Jim's Grill, directly opposite the Lorraine Motel. He was assured that the police would not be there, that a patsy (Ray) would be provided and that Jowers would be rewarded handsomely with money out of New Orleans.

In his Canadian Broadcasting Corporation lectures at the end of 1967, Martin Luther King had expressed a vision that went beyond even the Poor People's Campaign and the Vietnam War. He saw the next step as a global nonviolent movement using escalating acts of massive civil disobedience to disrupt the entire international order and block economic and political exploitation across borders. The Poor People's Campaign was to be only the beginning.

The power structure knew -- more clearly than most Americans -- the breadth of King's vision. As William Pepper shows in Orders to Kill, they had reason to want Martin Luther King dead.

When Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot down in El Salvador, his people didn't say, "Oh, there goes another lone nut killing a prophet."

They recognized immediately the covert forces behind their prophet's murder, which equally threatened them. Because the Salvadoran people identified and resisted those forces of death, the nonviolent spirit of Oscar Romero was able to be reborn in them.

Dexter King has repeated over the past three months that he and his family are prepared to forgive whoever murdered his father. In explanation of why they have waited so long to appeal for a trial and demand that the truth be revealed, he said: "For many years we've felt that there was more to this case than had been presented to the public. And I think we were somewhat in denial."

Forgiveness and a call for the truth are the gifts of a family with the living faith to overcome 29 years of denial.

Here is the spiritual link between a stunning new knowledge of King's assassination and our finally realizing the nonviolent revolution that prophet envisioned.

But the King family is our family, an extended family that stretches right across the USA in its 29 years of denial. Are the rest of us prepared to take the steps these closest family members have now taken? Will we respond nonviolently to the covert intelligence killers of Martin Luther King while facing the stark truth of what they did to us all, what we have allowed them to do to us and to our country during those 29 years of denial?

I can see again Coretta Scott King in that Memphis courtroom appealing for a trial for James Earl Ray.

Seeds of resurrection.

Yes, a people can be reborn.

Peace activist Jim Douglass lives in Birmingham, Ala.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 1997