WASHINGTON STAFF WRITER JIM BOCK AND RESEARCHER ROBERT GEE CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- In the minutes after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a dark suspicion crossed the mind of one of King's closest aides. Somehow, Andrew Young believed, the federal government had been behind the shooting.
After kneeling over his dying friend's body in Memphis, Tenn., that night, Young couldn't help thinking that "people in the federal government somewhere [had] made a decision that Martin had to be stopped."
No credible evidence of a government plot has been found, but suspicions remain. Indeed, while King's historical reputation seems secure, doubts surrounding his murder burn as fiercely as ever.
Today, 29 years after he was slain by a single rifle shot, his assassination is once again a hot topic. Speculation about who really killed King has become grist for newspapers, TV talk shows, prime-time news magazines and nightly newscasts.
The renewed attention is being fed by those close to King, including his family, who have never accepted the official version of events. Last week, in a made-for-TV encounter, King's youngest son, Dexter, told James Earl Ray, serving a 99-year prison sentence for the murder, that he believed Ray was innocent and had had nothing to do with the shooting.
Historians oppose reopening
Historians and others have deplored Ray's efforts, endorsed by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and his four children, to reopen the case. They depict the King family, variously, as unwitting dupes of a conspiracy theoretician and as promoters of their own pending movie deal with Oliver Stone, maker of the film "JFK."
"Many of the people around King have always wanted to believe there was something much bigger," says David J. Garrow, King's biographer.
Garrow calls it "very sad" that King's own family is "so uninformed" about the facts surrounding his murder. In his view, the evidence is "overwhelming" that Ray was the killer.
Taylor Branch, another historian of the civil rights movement, expresses concerns that Ray could, incorrectly, come to be viewed by the public as an innocent victim in the case. Branch explains the willingness to believe there was a grand conspiracy to kill King by recalling what the Rev. James Bevel, a King aide, once told him: "No one 10-cent white boy can murder a million-dollar black man."
Similarly, according to Branch, the Rev. James Lawson, who coordinated the Memphis garbage workers strike, which King was supporting when he was killed, found it hard to accept that nonviolence had broken down in Memphis. There was "a deep need on Lawson's part to believe that he was up against forces he could not control," Branch says.
Both Bevel and Lawson, who officiated at Ray's prison wedding in 1978, have long felt that Ray "could only be a pawn at best and, because he was a pawn, was essentially innocent," Branch adds.
In 1969, Ray, a small-time criminal with white racist connections, pleaded guilty to King's murder in exchange for assurances that he would not receive the death penalty. He recanted three days later. Since then, his attempts to get a full-scale trial have been rejected by state and federal courts.
Ray, now 69 and terminally ill with liver disease, has repeatedly changed his story over the years. Even if a new trial is granted, he may not live long enough to testify.
"We are racing against the clock," Dexter King has said, describing the effort as a final chance to bring "closure" to his family's tragedy.
In 1979, after a two-year investigation, the House Select Committee on Assassinations reaffirmed that Ray killed King. But a majority of the committee also found "substantial evidence" -- though no hard proof -- of a conspiracy linking Ray to white racist businessmen in the St. Louis area.
Ray's attorney, William F. Pepper, contends that a much broader conspiracy -- involving the corporate elite, the government and the mass media -- was at work. Pepper, who was briefly associated with King in the final year of his life, laid out his theory in a 1995 book, "Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King."
The book, which Dexter King called "very compelling," actually offers several competing explanations. One is that a team of Army sharpshooters was sent to Memphis to assassinate King. Another points at organized crime. A third backs Ray's longtime assertion that a mystery man known only as Raul was responsible.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, like Andrew Young and others in Memphis that night, continues to have doubts about what really was behind the shooting. Jackson is convinced Ray pulled the trigger. But he criticizes the FBI, which oversaw the investigation, for failing to identify others who may have been involved.