Every Martin Luther King day, and every year on April 4, the media reiterates the myth that a lone assassin killed MLK. But sworn testimony from a 1999 trial suggests a Memphis police officer may have been the one who pulled the trigger.
Martin Luther King was described by law enforcement as “dangerous”
In the years leading up to his murder, Dr. King was increasingly vocal in his opposition to the Vietnam War, drawing unilateral scorn from the nation’s liberal media elite. The New York Times Editorial Board said his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” was a “disservice” to both the antiwar movement and the Civil Rights movement. The Washington Post said Dr. King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people,” following the speech. The Los Angeles Times called King’s antiwar stance “extreme,” and ran a political cartoon called “Dr. King takes the plunge” showing King diving into an empty swimming pool labeled “Vietnam criticism.”
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” King said near the end of the speech.
It’s important to remember that Dr. King’s movements and speeches were monitored closely by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, with one internal memo calling him “the most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country” following his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. In November of 1964, anonymous FBI agents sent Dr. King a letter trying to blackmail him into committing suicide.
“King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
By 1968, the federal government, local law enforcement officers in Memphis, Tennessee, and organized crime figures were conspiring to murder Dr. King. This isn’t conspiracy theory, but facts corroborated by dozens of credible witnesses — like former Congressman and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, former Memphis Police Department homicide detective Captain Thomas Smith, and former Memphis fire chief Norville Wallace — in a 1999 civil trial filed by Dr. King’s family in Memphis, known as King v. Jowers.
As CBS News reported in 1999, the jury of six black people and six white people deliberated for just three hours before declaring the federal government guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. The King family only asked for a settlement payment of $100, saying the real victory was in exposing the truth and pushing for a more thorough investigation of the people actually responsible for Dr. King’s assassination.
The Conspiracy to Kill Martin Luther King
While the official transcript of King v. Jowers is more than 2,700 pages long, the long and short of the conspiracy is this: The murder was ordered by a mafia-connected grocer in Memphis named Frank Liberto, who asked Loyd Jowers — a retired Memphis police officer who was also the owner of a restaurant that faced the Lorraine Motel — to hold approximately $100,000 ($716,639 in today’s dollars) at his restaurant as payment for the men who would kill Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, and to hold onto the rifle used to carry out the assassination until someone came by to dispose of it. At least two federal agencies — the 111th Military Intelligence Group based out of Fort McPherson in Atlanta and the Army Security Agency — were conducting both eye-to-eye and covert surveillance of Dr. King the night he was killed in Memphis.
In his testimony, Andrew Young said that while meeting with Jowers in 1998, alongside Dexter Scott King (MLK’s second son), and with Jowers’ attorney, Lewis Garrison, “[Jowers] wasn’t very well, and it was almost like he wanted to get right with God before he died.” Young also described Jowers as “a man who had a lot on his mind and a lot on his conscience and who wanted to confess it and be free of it.”
When pressed by Attorney William F. Pepper, who was representing the King family, if Jowers seemed like he was trying to get a book deal, Young said he firmly believed Jowers’ motivation was simply to confess his sins. The meeting between Dexter King, Young, Garrison, and Jowers was taped for posterity, and a transcript of the conversation runs from pages 659 to 779 of the King v. Jowers transcript.
“[W]e had to break the session several times because [Jowers] had coughing spells,” Young testified. “This was a man who was very sick who was like wanted to come to confession to get his soul put right.”
According to Young, Jowers told him that in 1968, he was indebted to Liberto following “a lot of drinking and gambling problems.” When Liberto called him, Jowers was tentative to take the call fearing that Liberto was calling to collect on his debt. However, Liberto simply asked Jowers — who bought produce for his restaurant from Liberto’s Scott Street Market — to use a bag of money hidden in his daily delivery to pay the man who brought an undisclosed “package.”
Young also testified that Jowers was instructed by Liberto to wait by the back of his restaurant at approximately 6 PM on April 4, 1968, to accept a “package” and hide it in his storeroom. Jowers told Young that around that time, he heard a loud bang, opened the door, and accepted a smoking rifle from a former Memphis police officer he used to hunt with, who emerged from the bushes adjacent to his restaurant. Jowers then broke the rifle down, wrapped it in a tablecloth, and hid it in his storeroom.
During the taped conversation between Jowers, Dexter King, Andrew Young, and Lewis Garrison that was played during the King v. Jowers proceedings, Jowers told King and Young that there was only one round of ammunition in the rifle, and that he personally disposed of the shell casing for the bullet that killed Martin Luther King:
LEWIS GARRISON: Mr. Jowers, you told Mr. King, too, before what happened to the casing of the bullet. What did you do with that?
LOYD JOWERS: I put it down … in the commode and flushed it. It didn’t go down. It stopped the damn commode up. Anyway — this is the next day. I got it out. That night, whenever I closed, I drove across the Mississippi bridge, and about in the center of it I throwed it over the side while I was driving along. It is in the bottom of the Mississippi River, the actual shell, the casing.
Was Martin Luther King’s murderer MPD officer Earl Clark, instead of James Earl Ray?
Memphis taxi driver James Edward Milner — a close friend of Jowers — testified that in 1998, he and Jowers spoke on the phone almost every day for a period of two to three months, saying Jowers was trying to come clean about his role in the assassination of Dr. King. Among the revelations about Martin Luther King’s murder, Milner said Jowers told him:
-He was offered approximately $100,000 by Frank Liberto “if [Jowers] thought he could find somebody to do a killing.”
-His former partner at the Memphis Police Department and two other MPD officers sat in Jowers’ restaurant and “planned this thing out over two days,” along with two other men he didn’t recognize.
-The two officers he recognized were Johnny Barger — a supervisor who was Jowers’ former partner at MPD — and Earl Clark (now deceased), who often went hunting with Jowers in Mississippi (the bullet that killed Dr. King was described by a ballistics expert on page 867 of the King v. Jowers transcript as a “hunting bullet … designed for the human harvesting of animals”).
-The third MPD officer attending the meetings was “a law enforcement officer by the name of Merrell McCullough,” (actually spelled as Marrell McCollough) who was later revealed in the transcript to have successfully infiltrated a local black power group called The Invaders. McCollough is the only man in the iconic post-assassination photo not pointing, but instead kneeling over Martin Luther King’s body. Six years after the assassination, McCollough was employed by the CIA.
During the testimony, Milner stated that in one particular phone conversation, Jowers recalled to him how he was told to meet someone at the back door of his restaurant at 6 PM on April 4, 1968 to receive a “package.” That package was a smoking rifle, and the man who handed him the gun was MPD Lieutenant Earl Clark.
JAMES MILNER: All of a sudden [Jowers] heard a big bang. He said when he opened the door right away when he heard it, because he — he said as soon as he opened the door, one of the officers handed him a rifle. It was still smoking from the barrel.
WILLIAM PEPPER: Which officer handed him the rifle?
PEPPER: Did he say officer handed him the rifle?
MILNER: He said it was Earl Clark.
On page 728 of the King v. Jowers trial transcript, Jowers himself admits that it was Clark who handed him a rifle with smoke coming out of the barrel — a 30-06 with a scope — at approximately 6 PM on April 4, 1968, at the back door of his restaurant, which faced the Lorraine Motel, shortly after hearing a loud bang.
ANDREW YOUNG: But you are pretty sure that when you were standing at the back door, Clark gave you a smoking rifle?
LOYD JOWERS: I’m sure it was Clark.
James Earl Ray was “a front man … a setup man”
The official narrative that gets repeated ad nauseam each year is this: On the day of the assassination, James Earl Ray was said to have fled the scene after firing a rifle from the bathroom window of a rooming house on the second floor of the building that housed Jowers’ restaurant. Before he left town, Ray allegedly dropped a bundle at the front door of the Canipe Amusement Company on South Main Street that contained a rifle with his fingerprints, a pair of binoculars with his fingerprints, and some of his clothes.
After a two-month long manhunt, Ray was apprehended at London’s Heathrow Airport, and was eventually sentenced to a 99-year sentence for killing Dr. King, despite repeated attempts to reverse his guilty plea. Ray’s plea, as described by Judge Joseph B. Brown — who presided over his case and was called as a witness in King v. Jowers — was an Alford v. North Carolina plea, which originated from a United States Supreme Court case where a defendant pleaded guilty for the purpose of avoiding a trial but maintained innocence.
However, testimony from former Memphis Police Department officers, those close to Frank Liberto, eyewitness testimony, and physical evidence show the official lone wolf narrative to be false.
Physical evidence casting doubt on Ray’s involvement
The testimony of Judge Brown, which begins on page 833 of the King v. Jowers transcript, reveals the judge to be an expert in the area of ballistics, which was officially recognized by the court on page 838 of the transcript. Brown explains that when an ammunition manufacturer makes bullets, they are made in “lots,” which have the same metallurgical composition so customers can expect consistency in the rounds they purchase.
However, Brown noted that the bullet that entered Martin Luther King’s cheek had a different metallurgical composition than from the evidence bullets found in the rifle inside the bundle left at the front door of the Canipe Amusement Company, meaning they were from an entirely different lot.
Moreover, the scope that was attached to James Earl Ray’s rifle was never properly sighted. Judge Brown explained that with the rifle in question, Ray would have had to use a device known as a polarimeter to zero in on Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Brown cited an FBI report where agents test-fired Ray’s rifle shortly after taking it in as evidence.
“[T]hat report revealed that it shot several feet to one side at a hundred yards and slightly half that low,” Brown testified. “So this does not appear to have been a sighted-in weapon.”
Six testimonies contradicting the official narrative
1. While the State of Tennessee argued Ray fired the fatal shot from the bathroom window of the rooming house at 422 1/2 S. Main St at 6 PM on April 4, 1968, taxi driver James McCraw had a full view of the bathroom at that time and testified in a sworn deposition on October 22, 1998 that the bathroom was empty.
McCraw arrived at the rooming house shortly before 6 PM on the day of the assassination to pick up a passenger named Charlie Stephens. After walking up to Stephens’ room, he noticed Stephens and his girlfriend both intoxicated and lying on Stephens’ bed. McCraw told Stephens that he was too drunk for the ride and left. McCraw stated for the record that the bathroom door was standing wide open and that there was nobody inside (page 349 of the transcript). He stated that the entire exchange with Stephens, between him entering the residence and returning to his cab, was about four minutes.
McCraw also testified that on Friday, April 5, he went into Loyd Jowers’ restaurant at approximately 12 PM before he went to work, and that Jowers showed him the rifle used to kill Martin Luther King that he had in a long box hidden under the counter. This corroborates what Jowers told Young and Dexter King on page 666 of the transcript. When McCraw went back to Jowers’ restaurant that evening following his shift, Jowers told him he gave the rifle to the police.
2. Another witness called to the stand was former Memphis Police Department officer Ed Atkinson, who had been with the department for more than 25 years. He recalled one conversation on the stand shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King about how he and three other officers — one of whom may have been Earl Clark — talking at MPD central headquarters about how it was unlikely that James Earl Ray could have fired the fatal shot from the second floor bathroom window of the rooming house due to a sycamore tree that obstructed view of the Lorraine Motel (page 600 of the transcript).
3. Olivia Catling, who lived near the Lorraine Motel and was at home the night of the assassination, was also called to the stand. She recalled how after hearing the shot, she and her children ran toward the sound, saying that Dr. King was in the hotel. She stopped at the intersection adjacent to the crime scene because several police cars were driving by, but noticed a firefighter who had come to get a glimpse of Dr. King gesture toward a patch of brush, describing it as the origin of the shot — not the second-floor window of the rooming house (page 569 of the transcript). Catling said while he told police where the shot came from, the police did not acknowledge him.
Catling also testified that she saw a man leave the scene of the crime, run through an alley, climb into a green 1965 Mustang, and drive away unobstructed by police. Catling remembered saying, “It is going to take us six months to pay for this rubber he is burning up” while watching him drive away. She then recalled how odd it was that this man drove away “within minutes” of the assassination in front of MPD officers, who did not give chase.
WILLIAM PEPPER: Was this occurrence that you saw this, this man running through the alley, getting in the car and speeding away, was he carrying out this act in front of the police?
OLIVIA CATLING: Oh, yes, he was. The police had made it there.
PEPPER: So the police were there?
PEPPER: And they saw him do this?
PEPPER: What did they do?
PEPPER: Did that seem strange to you at that time?
CATLING: It did.
PEPPER: They just let him drive away. Was this quite close to the time of the actual killing?
CATLING: This was — yes.
PEPPER: Within minutes, in any event?
CATLING: Within minutes.
4. Some of the testimony in King v. Jowers suggested that top-ranking Memphis police officers intentionally put Dr. King at risk by pulling back his security detail. Scholar Phillip Melanson — who was chair of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth political science department for 12 years — testified that in his research on the King assassination, he discovered that former Memphis Police Department Inspector Sam Evans (now deceased) ordered Dr. King’s police escorts be pulled back several miles away from the Lorraine Motel the morning of the assassination (page 427 of the King v. Jowers transcript).
Melanson said that in addition to Evans personally admitting to him in an interview that he pulled back Martin Luther King’s security, Evans said the same thing to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. When asked why, Evans said the request came from Reverend Samuel Kyles — a local pastor who was not affiliated with Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference — and that he simply honored the request. Melanson testified that it “makes no sense to me whatsoever in terms of law enforcement chain of command” that a police department would pull back the security detail for a high-level public figure based solely on the request of a local pastor.
5. Inspector Evans also allegedly tampered with evidence at the scene of the crime, according to the testimony of retired city official Maynard Stiles. In 1968, Stiles was the division superintendent of the Memphis sanitation department. On page 549 of the trial transcript, Stiles testified that he got a call from Inspector Evans at approximately 7 AM the morning after the assassination of Dr. King “requesting assistance in clearing brush and debris from a vacant lot in the vicinity of the assassination.”
When shown a map of the crime scene, Stiles recognized the area immediately behind the rooming house facing the Lorraine Motel as the area in which Evans made the request to have a city crew of at least three workers sent to clear the brush. Under the direction of the Memphis Police Department, the work crew sent to the site “proceeded with the cleanup in a slow, methodical, meticulous manner.”
6. The testimony that perhaps damages the credibility of the state’s official lone wolf narrative more than anything else came from James Nathan Whitlock — a taxi driver, professional musician, and local hero whose deeds were officially recognized by both the City of Memphis and the State of Tennessee. Whitlock testified that he came to know Frank Liberto toward the end of the 1970s, as his produce market was just a mile away from his family’s restaurant. Liberto allegedly told Whitlock’s mother that he had Dr. King killed.
Whitlock and Liberto became close friends over the years. In 1979, Whitlock testified that they were talking about the assassination of Martin Luther King when Whitlock asked him up-front whether or not he had been the one to kill King. After asking whether or not Whitlock was wearing a wire, Liberto confided to him that he personally ordered Dr. King’s assassination (page 224 of the transcript):
NATHAN WHITLOCK: I’m going to use that N word nobody wants to hear. I don’t want to offend anybody by saying this.
WILLIAM PEPPER: Mr. Whitlock, just say what you know.
WHITLOCK: He told me, he said, I didn’t kill the nigger, but I had it done. I said, what about that other son-of-a-bitch up there taking credit for it? He says, ahh, he wasn’t nothing but a troublemaker from Missouri, he was a front man. I didn’t know what that meant. Because “front man” to me means something different than what he was thinking about. I said, a what? He said, a setup man.
Even though Martin Luther King was killed 50 years ago, and most of the people tied to the conspiracy surrounding his murder are deceased, it’s worth noting that Loyd Jowers — a former Memphis police officer — fingered his hunting buddy Earl Clark as the man who had a rifle with smoke still coming out of the barrel in his hands seconds after Dr. King was shot, that he made these remarks with his attorney present, and that his statement was not only recorded on tape, but corroborated by both a former UN ambassador and one of Dr. King’s sons.
While the word “conspiracy” sounds spurious, its legal definition simply means that two or more people conspired to carry out an illegal act at some point in the future. The seriousness of a half-black, half-white jury finding the federal government guilty of conspiracy to kill America’s most beloved social justice leader can’t be overstated.
When remembering Martin Luther King’s legacy, let’s also never allow the names of the people and organizations truly responsible for his murder to be buried under a false lone wolf narrative.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.