Review of 'An Act of State', William F Pepper, Verso £17
Martin Luther King is often viewed as being at the opposite end of the political spectrum to Malcolm X. The latter is seen as the uncompromising radical of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, while King is portrayed as a reformer who could not keep pace with the growing militancy of the times. The truth is not so black and white. King was increasingly shifting to the left, coming out against the Vietnam War and organising on class lines through the Poor People's Campaign and supporting strike action. The US was in flames, with 131 riots in the first six months of 1968. The government was panicking and so, like Malcolm X, King was murdered.
The official line has been that King's death on 4 April 1968 was the act of a lone racist gunman, James Earl Ray. This was confirmed by a House Select Committee on Assassinations report in 1979 and recently by a US Department of Justice investigation. William Pepper, a colleague of King's, puts forward an alternative to this in his book 'An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King'. Pepper, who has been working on the case for 25 years, meticulously disassembles the official theory.
According to Pepper, King's assassination was ordered by the US government and carried out by its various agents. Ray was their patsy, framed by the Memphis police. The only eyewitness claiming Ray was the killer was drunk at the time. The rifle with his prints on did not match with ballistic tests. Military units surrounded the motel where King was staying, serving as a back-up in case the sharpshooter failed. All black state officials were taken off duty on that day in case they reported on the real events that took place. Added to this are numerous witness testimonies that others were responsible for the murder. The decision to kill King had been taken months, if not years, before.
This sounds unbelievable and Pepper has been attacked by the establishment and the media for his 'sensational' conspiracy theories. But the evidence Pepper details in his book, which is corroborated by a number of sources, cannot be easily dismissed. It was this very evidence which was used in a civil action in 1999 against one of the main conspirators. A large number of witnesses testified to the extensive range of activities which led to King's death and the attempts to cover up the truth. Incredibly, the chronicle of events include murder, solicitation of murder, intimidation of witnesses, attempted bribery, suppression of evidence and alteration of the crime scene. Pepper led the prosecution team and after four weeks the jury found the defendant guilty. Most importantly it concluded that government agencies were involved in the conspiracy to kill King. The ruling was barely reported on, with only small articles in the 'New York Times' and the 'Washington Post'. Pick up most history books or browse the web and virtually everything will back the official government line that Ray was the killer. This is even more surprising when you realise that Pepper's case was backed by King's family, including his widow and son.
The credibility of Pepper's detractors diminishes as you realise that virtually all of their evidence is based on police, military, FBI and state records. If all of these agencies were involved in the conspiracy to murder King, then they are hardly going to suddenly come clean. Pepper successfully shows their various attempts to suppress and censor evidence that challenges the official line.
The book chronologically examines how Pepper pieced together various fragments over the years and his attempts to prove Ray's innocence. He goes through all of the evidence and highlights leads that the state did not follow up or deliberately ignored. At times, especially early on in the book, it can seem confusing. Various names, dates and events are provided at once and it can be hard keeping track of who is who. There is also a tendency to repeat some of the facts and events but this is understandable. Pepper wants to avoid any of his facts being questioned and if that means repetition, then so be it. Despite these minor gripes the book and Pepper's commitment to investigating King's murder are a remarkable achievement. It shows the corrupt nature of the US government and its ability to intimidate, harm, torture and even kill those who challenge it.