The 1999 Civil Trial for the Murder of Dr. King

We are in the midst of Black History Month and I recently came across information regarding the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King that I had never known before. As a history teacher when there are historical events that I don’t know about, it bothers me. One of the reasons that I went on to be a history teacher was because I was upset with the history that I wasn’t taught in school.  At times I had to educate myself, because of the lack of information covered in textbooks. Thankfully I discovered the writings of people like Howard Zinn who helped guide my education.

But I think I have just come across the most alarming piece of information that I never knew about. It involves a trial that took place in 1999, which was 31 years after King’s murder.

The fact that the murder of one of the most important figures in American history took 31 years to be tried is hopefully as shocking and offensive to you as it is to me, but this is just the tip of the offensive iceberg.

There was never a murder trial because the accused killer, James Earl Ray took a plea bargain so there would be no trial.

In 1999 the King family won a civil trial that found the “U.S. Government and other agencies were guilty in the wrongful death of Martin Luther King” This was the only trial in the murder of King.

The only trial that was held about the murder of Martin Luther King took place 31 years after his death AND the verdict of the 12 jurors was that the U.S. Government was guilty of his murder.

So let this sink in.

The verdict concluded that it was not an act committed by a lone random racist gunman named James Earl Ray, but it was in fact a planned assassination, coordinated by the Memphis Police Department and the U.S. Department of Defense.

I know (at least for me) that this information may sound too hard to believe, but instead of my analysis let me just add quotes from the actual trial transcripts that can be found here:

Attorney William Peppers, “Had you known that two army photographers were on the roof of the fire station photographing everything. Two cameras, one on the balcony and one whisking around the driveway and into the brush area. Did you know ladies and gentlemen that the assassination was photographed? That there were photographs buried in the archives at the Department of Defense? No you did not know. And you know why you did not know? Because there was no police investigation in this case.

Well, the jury heard evidence as to how it was covered up for 31 years. And ladies and gentlemen, the evidence they heard ranged from murder, murder of a poor innocent cab driver who was putting luggage into a taxi cab in the driveway of the Loraine Motel and who saw the shooter come down over the wall, run down Mulberry Street and get into a waiting Memphis Police traffic car to be driven away. He told his dispatcher, “Oh, they got the killer. I saw him being driven away in a Memphis Police Department traffic car.” What happened to that poor taxi cab driver? He was interviewed by the police that night and they found his body the next morning. NO record of that death exists. NO record exists. If we had not found people whom he had told that story, who heard him on the very night we would have never known about this.

Then there is the whole thing about the bushes…the bushes. So many witnesses saw figures in the bushes and the shooter coming down over the bushes and running. You know the next morning at 7 o’clock, Inspector Sam Evans, from the Memphis Police Department pulled Maynard Styles, the Administrator of the Public Works Department and told Mr. Styles to get a team out there and cut those bushes down. At seven a.m., on the 5th of April, a team is sent to cut down the bushes. Now what does that mean in police terms? It means that you have totally devastated and changed the scene of a crime so that it is never the same. If there are no bushes, there can be no sniper. So that is the kind of thing that they did. This unfolded throughout.”

These quotes from the trial will surely bring out a lot of questions.

Here are a few of my questions about the results of the trial overall:

1. Since the U.S. Government was found guilty of the assassination of Martin Luther King, why did they not challenge or appeal the verdict? Not surprisingly, after the verdict the U.S. Justice Department did their own internal review and found themselves not guilty of the things the independent 12 member jury just said they were guilty of. But why not publicly fight against the verdict?

2. Why did the Government wait so long to kill King then? He had been protesting, marching, and speaking out since the 1950’s, so why was he assassinated in 1968 and not sooner?

3. Was he not killed sooner, because up until the mid-1960’s he had only been focusing on Civil Rights?

In the mid-1960’s King started focusing our country’s economic policies and also our foreign policies. He began to question why we were in Vietnam in the first place. His “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967 caused an uproar, because he was no longer just speaking about civil rights. In an excerpt from that speech King said, “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As  Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.””

4. Did the Government get scared that King could possibly lead a revolution that could truly and permanently alter the way the U.S. has operated since its creation?

Here is a reflection on the trial from King’s wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King. In her reflection she mentions how her family wanted no money from the government, but just the truth of her husband’s murder to be made public.

 “There is abundant evidence of a major high level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. And the civil court’s unanimous verdict has validated our belief. I wholeheartedly applaud the verdict of the jury and I feel that justice has been well served in their deliberations. This verdict is not only a great victory for my family, but also a great victory for America. It is a great victory for truth itself. It is important to know that this was a SWIFT verdict, delivered after about an hour of jury deliberation.

The jury was clearly convinced by the extensive evidence that was presented during the trial that, in addition to Mr. Jowers, the conspiracy of the Mafia, local, state and federal government agencies, were deeply involved in the assassination of my husband.

The jury also affirmed overwhelming evidence that identified someone else, not James Earl Ray, as the shooter, and that Mr. Ray was set up to take the blame.

I want to make it clear that my family has no interest in retribution. Instead, our sole concern has been that the full truth of the assassination has been revealed and adjudicated in a court of law…

My husband once said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” To-day, almost 32 years after my husband and the father of my four children was assassinated, I feel that the jury’s verdict clearly affirms this principle. With this faith, we can begin the 21st century and the new millennium with a new spirit of hope and healing.”

Whether you want to accept this information or not, you at least owe it to yourself to read more about this trial and the events surrounding Dr. King’s murder.

No matter how messy, the implications or inconvenient the truth is, it must be told.

This is what Coretta Scott King wanted and surely this is something Martin Luther King himself would want.

Resources to continue researching the trial:

The King Center

The Trial Transcripts

U.S. Justice Department Response

Synopsis of events of the day King was killed