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Back on the Trail of the King Assassination

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It is no accident that investigative writer Hampton Sides' Hellhound on His Trail hit the book stands in April. The month marks the 42nd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. April is as always the fitting month to do a brief moment of tribute to King's martyrdom and head scratching about the actual events before and after the murder. It's the aftermath of King's killing, though, that still intrigues and touches the deep notes of skepticism, doubt, and disbelief about whether we really do know all there is to know about the assassin and the assassination.

Sides steers clear of speculation about who did -- or more particularly, who didn't -- do what at the highest government levels in the assassination. He mostly focuses on a character driven piece-by-piece storyline narrative on the assassin, Ray, and victim, King. This does nothing to allay the suspicion that there was more, much more, to the story of the King killing than we know.

The doubt and suspicion was plainly evident four years back in a quote from Coretta Scott King on the King Center website, "There is abundant evidence that there was a high level conspiracy in the assassination of my husband." Coretta's expressed doubt was more than enough for more than fifty House representatives to endorse a bill to reopen the King assassination. A bevy of civil rights leaders also endorsed the bill. The bill quickly died, but it did re re-raise the still dangling questions about the killing of King.

Four years later, two truths stand about the murder. One, the evidence is unchanged. James Earl Ray was the lone triggerman. Sides reestablishes this fact in meticulous detail. At different times before his death, Ray gave conflicting, confusing and muddled accounts of his activities and whereabouts at the time of the murder.

His protests of innocence and frame-ups always sounded like a discredited man's desperate effort to salve his conscience, grab media attention, and cash in on the notoriety of the case. It worked. Ray's public thrashing about on the King murder sent conspiracy buffs stampeding to the barricades, shouting that the government killed King. The King family gave Ray's much-belated feigning of innocence credence when Coretta took the stand on his behalf at a civil trial in Memphis in 1999.

But Ray's overwhelming guilt doesn't cancel the second truth. The FBI, and still unknown other government agencies, waged a protracted, paranoid, down and dirty, wildly illegal secret war against King from the late 1950's to his murder; a war the likes of which the FBI waged against no other single person.

The assault on King was more than FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover acting out his paranoid obsessions against King. It was a war against the black movement. Hoover decided that the cheap and dirty way to win that war was by discrediting the most respected and admired symbol of that movement.

Hoover assigned Assistant FBI Director William Sullivan the dubious job of getting the goods on King. Sullivan branded King as the "most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation." In his book, My Thirty Years in Hoover's FBI, Sullivan described the inner circle of men assigned to get King. The group was made up of special agents mainly drawn from the Washington and Atlanta FBI offices. Their job was to monitor all of King's activities. Much of their dirty tactics are well known. They deluged him with wiretaps, physical surveillance, poison-pen letters, threats, harassment, intimidation, and smear sexual leaks to the media, and even at the time of his murder, Hoover had more plans to intensify the spy campaign against King. Decades later, Sullivan still publicly defended the FBI's war against him, and made no apology for it.

We still know only the barest of bare outline of what the FBI actually did toward King in his final days. Unfortunately, Sides doesn't fully connect the dots in the FBI's murky onslaught against King.

Then there's the actual assassination investigation. FBI officials who directed the illegal spy campaign against King, and the FBI agent who played a major role in running the program in Atlanta, were also involved in every phase of the assassination investigation. That raises even more questions about the scope, or lack thereof, of the investigation.

Sides' update and recreation of the King assassination doesn't reveal any smoking gun proof that the FBI and government agencies knew more than they have publicly disclosed to date about the murder. A murder in which the nation's top law enforcement agency did much to create a climate of suspicion and hate toward the civil rights movement that made a sick, demented Ray think it was perfectly right to squeeze off the fatal shot against the movement's greatest symbol. Sides, however, does a great service by again tossing the spotlight back on that fateful moment and its still profound consequence.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press).
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