A New Media Storyline for MLK (pt. 2)

Editorial cartoon, Shreveport Times (Louisiana), 13 Dec. 1967

(continued from part 1)

• 1968 The new year of 1968 begins on a turbulent note with a severe routing of U.S. forces in South Vietnam as part of the successful “Tet offensive” of the North Vietnamese guerrilla fighters, exposing the lies of U.S. military commanders and President Johnson himself that the USA was winning the war in Vietnam. U.S. public opinion against the war rises steadily from this point onward. Rev. King, at this critical time, stands at the forefront of the nation’s anti-war movement. And, as the above editorial cartoon shows, King is being increasingly viewed by white America as a rabble-rouser and a "troublemaker" who needed to be dealt with; U.S. government agencies such as the FBI are treating King as public enemy No. 1.

• Shanty towns in Washington Rev. King announces on 2 February 1968 that the ongoing plans for the kickoff of the massive Poor People’s March in Washington DC, scheduled for a few months later in April, are basically to occupy Washington. This will include the erecting of makeshift shantytowns by thousands of poor people in the nation’s capital as a symbol of the USA’s deep poverty problems. In doing so, he says, the poor people of America hope to provoke some drastic policy changes from the U.S. Congress and also appeal to the conscience of the nation.

King says that poor children joining the march, who are in dire need of medical treatment, will occupy the hospitals of Washington DC until they get treated, while other demonstrators will take their protest directly to their members of Congress, and still others will “descend upon government offices in waves”. King is seeking a reaction from the U.S. government: “We plan on staying [in Washington DC] until we get a response. If a response is not coming, we will escalate our methods. Disruptive measures will be used only as a last resort” {*6}.

A few days later, on 8 February, Rev. King gives the U.S. government a price tag of at least $10 billion as the amount the government needs to urgently set aside in its fiscal budget to meet the job and income needs of the thousands of African Americans who will be joining the Poor People’s March in Washington DC a few months later. At a time when the U.S. government is spending billions of dollars on a losing war in Vietnam, King says, allocating $10 billion for the needs of poor Black people at home in the USA should not be hard to do {*7}.

• “Unfulfilled Dreams” speech On 3 March 1968, Rev. King preaches a Sunday sermon in Atlanta, Georgia at his home church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church, on the theme of “Unfulfilled Dreams”. Speaking mostly in Biblical terms, King delivers a personal reflection and confession of sorts on his successes and failures. King was a man who always chose his words carefully, and the deeper meaning behind his words are hard to miss: Long gone are his optimistic “I Have a Dream” sentiments of racial harmony from five years before at the big March on Washington. That dream had not been fulfilled; the reality of racist violence and social upheaval still confronted his country. King speaks powerfully and prophetically to his congregation this morning, almost as if sensing he does not have much time left.

• Peace efforts in Africa A few days later, it is confirmed that Rev. King will be joining a delegation of four other well-known African American leaders on a peacemaking mission to the African nation of Nigeria starting 15 April {*8}. The purpose of the mission is to help mediate between the two sides in the country’s civil war, which had begun the year before: the heavy-handed military government of Nigeria on one side, versus the Biafra region of the country that had seceded and declared itself an independent state on the other side. The underlying cause of the civil war was the supply of oil in the region. Millions of civilians in the Biafra region were reported to be starving to death due to a blockade by the Nigerian government, and relief efforts for Biafra were springing up all over the world.

While the U.S. government claims to be neutral in the conflict and thus offers no help to the millions of starving Nigerians, the U.S. is giving military assistance to the Nigerian government. American companies are heavily invested in the oil-rich region as well. By going to Nigeria as a peace broker, Martin Luther King Jr. is standing in direct contradiction to U.S. government policy in the Biafran war. But, it is reported, King will be back in the United States in time for the start of his massive Poor People’s March on Washington DC, which is moving ahead as scheduled for 22 April 1968.

• National Cathedral address At the end of that month, on 31 March 1968, Rev. King preaches a Sunday morning sermon to an overflowing crowd of hundreds at the prestigious Washington National Cathedral in Washington DC, titling his talk “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”. He had given variations of this same sermon several times in the past, but this day it takes on a whole new meaning: His planned Poor People’s March on Washington DC is now just a few weeks away, and there is indeed a sense of revolution in the air.

King had evolved and come full circle since his “I Have a Dream” speech in this same city just five years before at the big March on Washington. This time, at the National Cathedral, he uses the metaphor of “being awake” as a sort of counterpoint to the dreaming of the past. Delivering this sermon was a masterful orator at work, crystalizing everything he had worked for up to this point. His eyes are wide open now to what he calls the “difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace”. But, he says, “I will not yield to a politic of despair. I’m going to maintain hope as we come to Washington in this campaign. The cards are stacked against us. This time we will really confront a Goliath. God grant that we will be that David of truth set out against the Goliath of injustice, the Goliath of neglect, the Goliath of refusing to deal with the problems, and go on with the determination to make America the truly great America that it is called to be.”

In a press conference following his sermon, King confirms that the Poor People’s March will begin in Washington DC on 22 April as planned, followed later in the week by 3,000 to 4,000 selected demonstrators who will build shantytowns at a site within the city, symbolizing the need for the government to deal with poverty. That, in turn, will be followed by a much larger demonstration of hundreds of thousands of people coming to Washington DC on 15 June.

If that does not get any meaningful results from the U.S. government, King hints, then the Democratic Party’s upcoming 1968 election convention later that summer in Chicago might also be targeted for nonviolent protests — the Democrats “will have a real awakening”, he says — along with the Republican Party’s planned convention in Miami Beach, Florida {*9}. King is turning up the heat as high as it could go on the political powers that be in America.

That heat was no doubt felt all the way across town at the White House, where, that very same evening of 31 March, President Lyndon Johnson announces in a televised address to the nation that he will not be running for re-election in the next presidential campaign. Johnson is a defeated president by then, having gone up against public opinion in escalating the war and losing that public support in the process. And it surely did not help Johnson to have Martin Luther King Jr. publicly opposing him and his policies, both domestic and foreign. King’s address at the National Cathedral that Sunday morning would be the last major speech of his life.

• Assassination Rev. King’s planned trip to Africa as a diplomat for peace at the international level never took place. King is killed by the single bullet of an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee on 4 April 1968. That date is significant: It was exactly one year to the day since King had first come out against the Vietnam war in his speech at the Riverside Church in New York City.

The Poor People’s March on Washington went ahead in the wake of King’s killing that spring, however, with a few thousand volunteers setting up a tent camp called “Resurrection City”. A few months later, the police forcibly removed the volunteers and cleared the area. Without King to lead it, the poor people’s campaign all but withered and dried up, receiving few if any meaningful concessions from the U.S. government in addressing the problem of poverty throughout the nation. The American war in Vietnam would go on for another five years or so.

• “Lone crazed assassin” theory Part of the U.S. news media storyline every year in commemorating the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is the tale of James Earl Ray, a petty criminal who had been in and out of jail, as the man who relentlessly stalks Rev. King during his final days out of racial animosity and finally catches up with him that day in Memphis when King steps out of his motel room at the Lorraine Motel and Ray shoots him to death.

But there is one big problem with the U.S. media’s reporting on James Ray as the killer of Rev. King: It never actually happened. The lone, crazed assassin theory is merely that — an official theory, and not a well-constructed one at that, as to how King was assassinated. The true facts of the killing of King, which have come out in bits and pieces in the decades since his death, provide us with a much different and more disturbing conclusion.

Ray fought for years from inside of prison, with the strong support of the surviving family members of Martin Luther King Jr. and some of King’s closest associates, to clear his own name in the notorious murder, and in demanding the public trial he had been denied from the beginning {*10}.

Ray, the accused assassin, at one point retained as his attorney William Pepper, a former friend and associate of Martin Luther King Jr. It was Pepper, remember, who had published the shocking report for Ramparts magazine back in 1967, “The Children of Vietnam”, that had been shown to King, eventually leading King to come out against the war in Vietnam in the first place.

Nobody has done more than attorney William Pepper, in fact, in establishing the closest thing to the truth regarding the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Pepper has published several books over the years on the King assassination {*11}. In his research and investigation for those books, Pepper presents chilling evidence of King being under military surveillance and followed in his final weeks by a U.S. army special forces sniper team — right up to the moment King was killed.

And it was Pepper, as an attorney for the King family, who helped bring to trial the only court case ever held in relation to the death of Rev. King. In that case, Coretta Scott King, et al, vs. Loyd Jowers, et al, the jury decided on 8 December 1999 that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed on 4 April 1968 as a result of a conspiracy that involved Loyd Jowers, a local Memphis restaurant owner, and also a conspiracy involving U.S. “governmental agencies”.

And the actual shooter of Martin Luther King Jr.? The shooter has been identified as Frank Strausser, a police officer with the Memphis Police Department (MPD) and a highly skilled marksman back in 1967. The MPD shooter fired the single, lethal shot at King from behind bushes just across the street from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King and his entourage were staying. The ensuing cover-up at various levels kept the MPD’s role in the assassination secret for years.

It had taken more than three decades for the truth to rise again about Rev. King’s death in the trial brought by Pepper and the King family, but it was now out. “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,” Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain leader, said afterward.

And where was the American watchdog press during this trial of the century? Fast asleep as usual or busy chasing down other more titillating stories around that time, such as a presidential sex scandal and yet another U.S.-led war overseas. The 1999 conspiracy trial of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared nowhere on the list of the top reported news stories of that year or, indeed, of that whole decade.

The wrap-up: Such media treatment should come as little surprise now in 2017, considering that while Rev. King was alive and pushing ahead with his activities for social and economic justice in the richest country on the planet, he was often vilified by the press in the U.S., from the local level up to the national level. In some cases, we now know, members of the news media even cooperated with U.S. government agencies such as the FBI to smear, discredit and otherwise distort King’s message and work. And yet the myth of a free, unfettered American press persists.

Today, 49 years after King’s death and 31 years since his birthday became a nationally observed holiday in the USA, the public still receives a media-washed version of King’s life that comes nowhere near to being complete or even correct on many counts. As we approach the half-century mark of King’s demise next year, it is more important than ever that people insist that Rev. King in death be reported on more accurately and fully as the social revolutionary he was in life — not as some mere harmless, hopeless dreamer, but rather someone who posed a real threat to the existing structures of political and economic power in the USA.

We will know we have succeeded in our insistence when a new U.S. media storyline of the observance Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018, exactly a half-century after Rev. King’s death, is something more along these truthful lines:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for which today’s national holiday is named, battled racial segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 [cue up: extended footage of violent police scenes against Black marchers], followed by a heartwarming speech later that year during a big public demonstration at the U.S. capital of Washington DC in which he shared his dream of future racial harmony in the USA [cue up: footage of “I Have a Dream” speech]. In 1965 King marched in Selma, Alabama for voting rights for African American citizens [cue up: more extended footage of police violence against Black marchers], and was instrumental in getting a historic voting rights bill passed into law that year.

In 1967, King spoke out for the first time against the U.S. war on the sovereign nation of Vietnam and the many civilian deaths that war was causing [cue up: news footage of dead Vietnamese families killed by U.S. soldiers + King’s speech at Riverside Church]. He was attacked in the U.S. press after his “Beyond Vietnam” speech [cue up: close-up shots of critical newspaper articles]. In the last year of King’s life, he increasingly spoke of “revolution” and of waking up from the dream [cue up: audio/video of King’s National Cathedral speech]. King was organizing a series of massive Poor People’s Marches, starting with one on Washington DC planned for the spring of 1968, demanding that poverty be addressed in the United States, when he was cut down by a single bullet from an assassin [cue up: scene of a fatally injured King lying flat on his back on a second-floor motel walkway].

The initial suspect, James Earl Ray, was imprisoned for the shooting. Ray long maintained his innocence in the killing, and was even supported in his quest for a public trial by the King family itself. Ray eventually died in prison without ever getting his full trial. The real killer of Martin Luther King Jr., meanwhile, has been identified since then as a Memphis Police Department sharpshooter, officer Frank Strausser.

A historic civil lawsuit was brought in 1999 by the King family [cue up: footage of Coretta Scott King giving testimony at the trial]. The final jury verdict in that trial was that U.S. “governmental agencies” had been involved in a “conspiracy” to assassinate Dr. King. But why would the U.S. government want King dead?

That question remains unanswered today. Perhaps it had something to do with Dr. King being seen as a very real threat to the government and to the favored status of major corporations in American society in his demands for an end to war, racism and militarism — and for more U.S. tax money to be spent on the millions of Americans who lived, and continue to live, below the poverty line in our country. After all, just a few months before his death, he was laying the groundwork for standing as a U.S. presidential candidate in the 1968 presidential election. In the last one year of his life, especially, King was becoming more radicalized in his political views and actions, thus becoming a thorn in the side of the political and corporate powers-that-be in the United States. He had to be removed, permanently, from the scene.

This year marks 50 years since Dr. King’s death, and today’s national holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is a day of reflection and action for a man many consider to be one of the most remarkable public figures of the last century: a Baptist preacher by profession, a revolutionary thinker and nonviolent social activist for peace, a tireless advocate for racial equality and economic justice in the USA. Has his dream been achieved? Will it ever be achieved?

That, of course, will be up to us.

{*1} “A Tragedy” (editorial), Washington Post, 6 April 1967, p. A20.

{*2} “Dr. King’s Error” (editorial), New York Times, 7 April 1967, p. 36.

{*3} Brian Covert, “Played by the Mighty Wurlitzer: The Press, the CIA, and the Subversion of Truth”, in Censored 2017 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2016), pp. 251-284.

{*4} United Press International (UPI), “King Vows Capital Marches”, Chicago Tribune, 5 December 1967, p. 1A-9, and Associated Press (AP), “King Plans March of Poor on Washington”, Danville Register (Danville, VA), 5 December 1967, p. 8-B.

{*5} Associated Press, “Dr. King Backs Negro Boycott”, Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, NM), 15 December 1967, p. D-1.

{*6} Associated Press, “Shanties in Capital Planned by King for Poor People’s March”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 February 1968, p. 8.

{*7} Associated Press, “Key to Job Demands”, Kansas City Times (Kansas City, MO), 8 February 1968. p. 16C.

{*8} Associated Press, “Martin Luther King Plans Nigerian Visit”, Kane Republican (Kane, PA), 9 March 1968, p. 3.

{*9} Associated Press, “Dr. King Threatens Convention Protests”, The Tennessean (Nashville, TN), 1 April 1968, p. 12.

{*10} See James Earl Ray, Who Killed Martin Luther King?: The True Story by the Alleged Assassin (Washington DC: National Press Books, 1992). Foreword by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a former close associate of King.

{*11} See William F. Pepper, Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1995), and William F. Pepper, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King (London/New York: Verso, 2008). Pepper’s latest book is The Plot to Kill King: The Truth Behind the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016).

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