William Pepper Calls Martin Luther Kings Murder an Execution
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zengers Newsmagazine
Used by permission
In January 1967, attorney, journalist and activist William F. Pepper published a feature in Ramparts magazine called The Children of Viet Nam. Consisting mostly of a series of shocking photos Pepper had taken of Viet Namese women and children burned by American napalm bombing raids, the piece attracted the attention of one of the worlds most famous activists for both civil rights and peace, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Peppers would become one of Kings closest associates during the last year of Kings life and 10 years after Kings assassination in 1968, Pepper would seek to honor his late friend through a decades-long attempt to find out the truth about his murder.
After King saw Peppers The Children of Vietnam feature in Ramparts, Pepper recalled in an appearance at San Diegos Current Affairs Bookstore January 28, He asked to meet with me and see other photos Id taken. At one point, I was going through the material with him and he just wept. He never could accept it, and became very emotional. Pepper was with King at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 a year to the day before Kings death when he delivered the most impassioned speech he ever gave against the Viet Nam War. But Pepper wasnt expecting the favor King asked him for just before he gave the speech.
He said to me, Bill, will you come down to Ebenezer [Baptist Church, Kings home church], take the pulpit and speak to my people? Pepper recalled. I thought hed gone around the bend. I said, Martin, you want a honky from the North to come down and talk to your people? He said, Yes, you must come down and talk to them. I said, Why? This is silly. Theyre your people, Martin. You talk to them. Youve always talked to them. And he waved his finger in front of me Ill never forget it and said, No. Youve been there. Youve seen it. You must tell them what I have to do, and theyll listen to you.
Pepper gave his anti-war speech at Kings church and worked closely with him for the next year on several dramatic projects designed to highlight not only the issues of racism and civil rights with which King was most commonly associated, but peace, social justice and a more equal distribution of wealth and income. Among these projects was a National Coalition for New Politics convention, held in Chicago in the fall of 1967, which drew 5,000 people as delegates and intended to nominate King and Dr. Benjamin Spock as a peace ticket for President but was sabotaged, Pepper came to believe, by government agents posing as African-American militants.
While he was speaking, Pepper recalled, I got a note from a Black Caucus saying, Get him out of here or we will hold him hostage and embarrass him. We didnt know then that that Black Caucus was led by provocateurs hired by the federal government, Mayor Daley and the Blackstone Rangers [a Black street gang in Chicago that received anti-poverty funding and had run-ins with the Chicago Black Panthers]. They were there to break up the convention, which they did by introducing the most extreme resolutions possible, which lost us all our funding.
Pepper believes that elements in the federal government particularly a super-secret wing of Army intelligence housed in the Pentagon decided King had to be eliminated not only because he had opposed the war in Viet Nam but because of the Poor Peoples Campaign he intended to mount in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1968 to demand a redistribution of wealth and income in the U.S. He was going to lead 500,000 people to D.C. and house them in a tent city, and the government was afraid that King would lose control of them and they would become violent and start a revolution, Pepper said.
After Kings murder on April 4, 1968 Pepper attended the memorial service with Dr. Spock and accepted as true the governments account of Kings death: that he had been killed by racist loner James Earl Ray. Pepper began to change his mind 10 years later when Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Kings second-in-command at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) civil-rights organization, asked for a chance to meet Ray in prison and asked Pepper to come along. The meeting which also included a Harvard psychologist who specialized in reading body language totally confounded Peppers expectations of what the killer of Martin Luther King should have been like.
He was not aggressive, not brutish, Pepper recalled. He didnt appear to have traces of overt racism. He was quite docile.
We came away with the belief that he was not the shooter, though we did not know at that time whether he had been actively involved in the conspiracy or whether he had been set up as a patsy. Nonetheless, Pepper joined Rays legal campaign to have his original guilty plea entered by his attorney over his objections set aside so he could be put on trial for the King assassination and, he hoped, exonerated.
The deeper I went into it, the more questions there were, Pepper said. I kept going back to James Earl Ray and he kept asking me to represent him. For 10 years 1978 to 1988 he asked me to represent him and I refused until I became convinced that he was just a patsy. Finally I got enough information to convince myself he was an unknowing patsy.
Though Peppers efforts did not succeed in getting Rays case reopened before an actual court, in 1993 he participated as Rays defense counsel in an unusual mock trial staged for TV, The Trial of James Earl Ray, co-produced by HBO and Britains commercial network, Thames Television. With legal professionals as judge (Marvin Frankel) and prosecutor (Hickman Ewing, Jr.), the trial proceeded according to Tennessee law with a jury recruited from a nationwide sample. After seven hours they found James Earl Ray not guilty, Pepper said. Few of you heard about it because it was not reported as a news story, but as entertainment.
Nonetheless, the TV trial shook loose other witnesses and allowed Pepper to put together a case on Kings assassination implicating military intelligence, the Marcello family of the Mafia, Mexican weapons smugglers, and as the apparent on-site field commander a man named Loyd Jowers who owned Jims Grill near the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee where King was shot. Pepper has published two books on the case: Orders to Kill (1995) and An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King (2002), and regards the latter book as the definitive presentation of his case for a conspiracy.
After James Earl Ray died in custody in 1998, Pepper met with the King family who in the later stages of Rays life had supported his legal effort to have his guilty plea set aside and to be tried and suggested they file a civil wrongful-death lawsuit against Jowers. We started it on November 10, 1999 and tried it for 30 days with 70 witnesses, Pepper said. It took the jury only 59 minutes to find for the King family against Jowers and conspirators known and unknown.
Asked what he has learned from his experience with the King assassination, Pepper said, Ive learned to be cynical and skeptical. Im a first-generation American from Ireland and I grew up as a kid believing everything I was taught in school. At 12 I played baseball and basketball, and I would play all day in the summer with Black kids. I began to see how people lived and wondered why they had to live that way. You have to become skeptical and question everything, and have no illusions about power. I am very unhappy now to see the course this American empire is taking. Rome was a republic before it became an empire, and today we see a lot of the same in the United States.
Asked what King would be doing if he were alive today, Pepper replied, Hed be very active in the leadership against war in Iraq. Were once again going to witness the slaughter of thousands of civilians. Were talking about an ancient civilization and people. Ancient Sumeria and Biblical Babylon had their roots in what is now Iraq. Were not only going to destroy a people but remake and restructure an ancient peoples symbols and heritage.
Throughout the world today an anti-war movement is building with surprising strength and speed from the roots up. Its difficult to engender this kind of feeling in the U.S. when the drumbeat sounds every day and the media are so consolidated they only report what the government and corporate leaders want people to hear.
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This is an extraordinary story. I had heard and read bits and pieces of it in the corporate media, but after reading this interview, I'm eager to go out and read Mr. Pepper's book myself. Thanks for the excellent reporting.
Limestone County Alabama has several Pepper families. We have a cousin named William Pepper. We wonder where your William Pepper grew up and now lives? Jane Perry Greene
Jane Perry Greene
My day started watching C-Span on which Mr. Pepper was reviewing his book. He came across as a good guy, a honest man, gifted with great intelligence, and a pursuer of the truth. Yes, the earmarks of national decay are all about us; but what to do? It is obvious my party, the Democrats, are obliquely attacking the corporate lords without a taste for the battle, while the alienated and impoverished exist in a lower caste hell. At least, the Republicans are honest in their misguided rightwing zeal. Third parties require decades to legitimize themselves. What to do that is reasonable and realistic?
It is absolutely Orwellian ..but apparently true, if it took a jury such a short time to come to an affirmative verdict. Hopefully, Mr. Pepper can get the truth out. I must read the book! Thank you
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