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The Martin Luther King Assassination: Missing Pieces

by Larry Hancock & Stuart Wexler, 18 May 2009

A key factor in the investigation of Dr. King’s murder was the practice of Director Hoover and the Bureau to quickly focus FBI efforts on the physical evidence from the scene of the crime. In one sense, such a policy is perfectly understandable - it directs the resources and assets of the Bureau towards establishing the body of evidence which will be used in the prosecution of the criminal case. It also maximizes the resources available at the national FBI crime laboratories. And establishing such a body of evidence is, after all, one of the primary missions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of such practice can be seen in the murder of President Kennedy, where we find open ended instructions issued to all FBI field offices to approach contacts and informants and begin checking suspect groups as of the afternoon of the assassination – and find those instructions canceled the following morning, directing all proactive FBI investigation towards Lee Harvey Oswald.

In the case of the King murder, with no suspect in custody, the Bureau spent the better part of two weeks initiating inquiries on the whereabouts and activities of probable suspects and beginning investigation of early leads provided by the public. Much of this attention was directed towards Klan members and militants known to have been involved in or having incited racial violence. We now have documents available which discuss a series of individuals who were investigated during the first 48-72 hours, many of them members and associates of the White Knights of Mississippi.

Once evidence had been processed which linked James Earl Ray to the crime, the Bureau’s proactive work became totally focused on Ray and individuals who were known to have been in contact with him, primarily his brothers. Leads which continued to come into the Bureau continued to be examined on the basis that others might have been involved in a conspiracy but such leads were closed relatively quickly if the suspect had no obvious or immediate association with Ray or if the individual could be shown not to have been in Memphis at the hour of the shooting.

This focus on Ray is illustrated in the handling of a lead which had been forwarded to the Justice Department from Miami immediately after the assassination. Dade County (Miami) Judge Seymour Gelber had written the U.S. Attorney General, suggesting that an investigation should be made of three men who had been involved in racial violence and a plot against Dr. King in 1964. The report contained several names and discussed the individuals’ involvement in the integration confrontations at the University of Mississippi, the possibility that the individuals might have been involved in instigating the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham and involved in plans to kill Dr. King in Alabama. One of the individuals had reportedly become so “hot” in Alabama at the time that he had to leave the state.[1]

That lead was forwarded to the relevant Bureau field offices and they did begin work on a background investigation of the individuals, including an attempt to determine where each had been the day of Dr. King’s murder. However, while that investigation was just getting underway, the field offices received an advisory message from Director Hoover. That message ordered that the background ID checks and as well as the overall investigation be held in abeyance. The reason given was that as of April 15th, the identification of a print from Memphis had been made and all general leads not dealing with that suspect were to be put on hold.[2] Placing such leads on hold, the closing of leads which showed no immediate evidence of suspects being in Memphis at the time of the murder or having personal contact with Ray, and the failure to correlate similar leads pointing to the same individuals may well have played a major role in the failure of the Bureau to surface a conspiracy which was indeed associated with Dr. King’s death in Memphis.

Neither the FBI nor the House Select Committee on Assassinations seemed able to conceive of a conspiracy involving people or groups who could effectively compartmentalize their actions. They also seem to have assumed that individuals who might have instigated such an act would have had to personally go to Memphis and be present at the scene of the crime. While the HSCA staff might be forgiven such a mistake, it is clear that individual FBI agents and offices had more than enough painful experience not to underestimate the “inner circle” operations of the Klan in such a fashion. Unfortunately the individuals with the most experience and understanding of the sophistication of such operations - and most success in breaking into such inner circles -were out in the FBI field offices, not directing the overall investigation. And FBI headquarters had no analysis section.

Within 48 hours of Dr. King’s murder, the FBI had received leads pointing towards White Knights leader Sam Bowers, members of his inner circle, and Klan fellow travelers as having been involved in a conspiracy which had brought about the death of Dr. King.[3] Of course those leads were among hundreds which began coming into the Bureau, but given the history of the White Knights and the Bureau’s own previous three year war against them, it would have seemed any names connected to the White Knights would have been highly suspect and worthy of a truly in-depth investigation.[4] The seriousness of such reports should have been magnified given that the FBI’s own informant and case files contained examples of at least two specific White Knight-connected plots to kill Dr. King, one in Alabama and one in Mississippi.v They also contained solid evidence that they had previously used high profile assassination as a provocation strategy in the Medgar Evers murder, that the White Knights were reported to have a standing high dollar bounty on Dr. King, and that they had recently begun to use totally unknown “outsiders” in terror attacks.

The FBI did follow up on such leads, however each was considered separately and there is no indication of any overall effort to collect or evaluate them in a coordinated fashion. In many cases the investigations appear relatively superficial, especially given that the fact that the Bureau should have been well aware of the actual amount of effort and time required to crack previous White Knight terror acts – they had learned that the hard way in their own massive MIBURN (“Mississippi Burning”) investigation, an investigation which had required hundreds of agents, many months of investigation and the combination of significant pressure and offers of both money and immunity – all targeted towards a single tightly knit radical network in Mississippi.

Analysis and follow-on to the Bureau’s King investigative effort is hindered by the fact that specific FBI interviews, provided to the House Select Committee, were classified and have yet to be released after thirty years. The Committee’s own interviews were then classified in turn. In addition, the vast majority of key FBI personal informant files remain confidential (there is also no indication that those were made available to the individual Bureau field offices in their individual King lead investigations) and we have no insight into the details of key field office files from Memphis, Jackson, Mobile, Atlanta or New Orleans. In our own work on the MLK murder, it has become apparent that a great number of documents and files which could allow a much fuller assessment of possible conspiracy in the murder of Dr. King are available. We have provided the following list to individuals pursuing Congressional action on release of King assassination records and share them with interested researchers as an illustration of what can potentially be done to jump start a common effort to unearth the conspiracy that the House Select Committee was able to characterize - but not to solve:

The Missing Pieces

FBI Central Headquarters HQ Files Sections 1-91, as well as the name index for those files, should be culled and reviewed for declassification with additional files released when found. The most abundant source of publicly available files on the MLK murder (MURKIN) are the FBI Central Headquarters files in the National Archives. At present the publicly available files on Dr. King include a few thousand pages of reports from the FBI’s MURKIN investigation, specifically Central HQ Worksheets, Department of Justice Referrals and Central Headquarters Files Sections 1 to 91. A new review (the last seems to have been in 2004) should commence to declassify material from these documents. A major obstacle to any release are the tightened standards of privacy applied to National Archive files in the past five years. Indeed, archive personnel and notations on finding aids indicate that many files or segments of files deemed suitable for full declassification as of 2005 have since been reclassified. Many sections of files are being held in abeyance, in fact, until archive staff can be sure that names and operations have been redacted from the record. Most notably, a name index that could expedite any researcher’s search of available files is being withheld in full for fear of privacy violations. This, although it is obvious that that many persons named on the list are certainly deceased and even though the name index was available to researchers even six years ago. All of these files should be reviewed for declassification using the latest death indices, and made available to the public. If possible, Congress should consider laws and statutes that would place the King material that was once in the public domain back into the public domain.

The materials from the Congressional investigation in the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. should be placed in the public domain. The House Selection Committee on Assassinations investigated King’s murder in the late 1970s, in conjunction with their more well known analysis of President Kennedy’s assassination. Yet the only material in the public record related to this investigation are those in the final report of the HSCA itself. The report makes clear, in its text and its footnotes, that thousands of new leads were unearthed and interviews were conducted as part of the investigation and none of this material is in the public domain. Experts estimate that 165 cubic square feet of material may be available in this regard. In contrast, virtually all of the HSCA’s investigative material on the Kennedy assassination is publicly available to the tune of millions of documents. Publicly available Kennedy materials include documents obtained from foreign intelligence sources and even the National Security Agency, that would obviously be more sensitive than 99% of the King material, which focused almost exclusively on domestic sources. Congress should release this King material as soon as possible by any means possible.

“Bulky files” on the King Assassination should be available to the public. Bulky files refer to the FBI’s investigation of physical evidence and would include photographs, fingerprint cards, lab reports, etc, sometimes even in original form. There are literally tens of thousands of such items publicly available on the Kennedy Assassination. A new search of the King files at the National Archives reveals a large quantity of bulky material, most notably material likely prepared for visual exhibits at the King trial. On the other hand, the kinds of material available in the Kennedy Assassination - fingerprint cards, autopsy materials, lab notes, suspect photographs, etc. - are virtually absent from the King material although it is obvious, from internal FBI communications, that hundreds of pages of such material should exist. The value of such material in the hands of skilled researchers has been demonstrated by such researchers as John Hunt and Gary Murr in the Kennedy case. The FBI laboratory should search its records for this material and provide it to the public.

All remaining records of the FBI Field Office investigations should be in centralized at the National Archives and reviewed for public access. At present, the National Archives has many boxes of records of the local investigations into various aspects of the King assassination, including records from Los Angeles Field Office, the Birmingham Field Office, the New Orleans Field Offices, and others. The record is incomplete, however, and subject to the same restrictions as those applied to the Central Headquarters files described above. To give one of the most obvious examples of “missing” material: none of the Jackson, Mississippi Field Office files are available at the National Archives. An internal FBI review in 1976, apparently done in anticipation of the future House investigation, revealed that the Jackson office had ~50% more material, in terms of boxes, than any other field office (17 boxes worth.) A reporter is now pursuing some of this material via the Jackson FBI, but this appears to be fewer boxes than that which was identified in the internal review. The next highest source of files from the local level - the Mobile, Alabama Field Office files (11 boxes) - is also nowhere to be found at the National Archives. Many other offices whose files were identified by the FBI review are not represented in the archives stash. Our understanding from talking with former FBI Special Agents is that many of these boxes were sent back to FBI Headquarters, and this appears to be confirmed by reviewing the footnotes of the House Selection Committee on Assassinations. All of these files should be located, centralized, reviewed for declassification using the latest death indices, and made available to the public.

Corollary files identified in the FBI Central Headquarters should be assumed as part of the King record, obtained and reviewed for declassification. The presently available FBI MURKIN (King murder investigation) frequently cited other relevant files - such as personnel and bureau files (BUFILES) on key figures and relevant investigations. The inference is that these files have important if indirect information to shed on the King case, yet none of these files are publicly available. When possible, they should be identified and subject to the same proposed review under the same proposed guidelines as the FBI Headquarters Central Files.

Records of prior investigations of attempted murders/assassinations of Dr. King should be publicly available; this should include past threats as well as overt attempts on Dr. King’s life. The record shows that when the FBI provided the MURKIN files to the public, they only included their investigation from April 4th, 1968 onward, when we know that they investigated prior attempts/threats on King’s life. One example would be the records of the FBI Birmingham Field Office participation in a 1958 sting investigation of a contract killing offer on Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. This offer was reportedly extended by J.B. Stoner; Stoner would later serve as James Earl Ray’s defense attorney and employed his brother as a security assistant. Another example would be the FBI investigation of a $100,000 bounty offer on Dr. King circulated in several prisons in 1967; we only have fragmentary information from these files even though the files themselves indicate that a major investigation was undertaken. What’s more, some of the information we have is not from the MURKIN files but was obtained by researchers from a general King file. In short, the FBI did not parse out threats on Dr. King’s life out of the King Headquarters file and include them in the MURKIN files; they should do so now.

Intelligence Agency, Military files on Dr. King should be publicly available. It is clear that what we do have from the intelligence agencies and military represent a small fraction of what should be available. This has in part led to sensational claims that these agencies themselves were complicit in King’s murder. Yet much of what they have is likely innocent but relevant to the investigation of any crime. Military files would likely include detailed surveillance and security records for both Dr. King’s Memphis trip as well as past trips. Intelligence Agency files would likely include records related to James Earl Ray’s trips to Canada, to Mexico, to England and to Portugal. A massive review of CIA, NSA, DIA, DEA, Pentagon and other files should commence with the goal of identifying relevant King records and making them available to the public.

The Memphis District Attorney’s office investigatory/prosecution files should be obtained and included in the public record. Investigative journalist Gerald Posner makes clear that the Memphis District Attorney’s office has ample and often original material in their files; material that served as the basis for Posner’s book on the King murder that to which he was given privileged access. This material should be publicly available to everyone. In addition, any court and grand jury transcripts should be publicly available, as they are in the case of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s investigation of the Kennedy Assassination.

Foreign intelligence/police files should be obtained when possible and included in the public record. In the late 1970s, Congress had little success prying material from foreign sources, but what is in the public record suggests that this material is abundant and important. There are signs however that their reticence has dampened with time. The Mexicans, for instance, have created their own FOIA law within the past several years, and an investigative journalist in Canada has obtained a section of files from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that were not previously available. If possible, either a board created to obtain and release records, or a Congressional delegation/representative should consider making an effort to obtain the files of the Mexican DFS, the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, Interpol and Scotland Yard. The files indicate that all four groups conducted their own separate investigations, including one of James Earl Ray before the King murder (in the case of the DFS.) These materials should be pursued as they may prove invaluable to researchers.

Police agency files should be obtained and released to public if possible. The Memphis police were the first law enforcement agency to investigate the King murder and they had a continued role in investigating the case. Less known is the fact that other police agencies, such as the Atlanta police and the Miami police, were an important adjunct to the FBI investigations in their geographic area. Indeed, the Miami police went so far as to send an informant on a cross-country trip to help investigate the case. Additionally, based on FBI documents we also know that there should be a series of relevant files in the Birmingham police records regarding the purchase of the alleged murder weapon in Birmingham. These are just a few of the examples of where police files could provide important information for historians. It would be helpful to, when possible, obtain those materials and make them publicly available.

In summary, it seems clear that one major factor lacking in both the FBI and HSCA investigations of the King murder, was total and comprehensive access to all the field data pertaining to the more credible conspiracy leads and suspects. The lack of a centralized Bureau analysis effort during the initial murder investigation and the use of seemingly “naïve” criteria for closing out credible conspiracy leads also suggests the strong possibility that elements of a conspiracy against Dr. King were missed in the highly focused effort to prosecute the “identified” assassin, James Earl Ray. Our initial studies suggest that it is quite possible that the pieces of information which would expose the conspiracy - which the HSCA identified but could not solve - are buried within the files and documents which were never consolidated nor treated to the sophisticated computer data mining available to us today for small fees through such resources as the Mary Ferrell website. It certainly would be desirable to have the Justice Department open an inquiry into the MLK case, based on significant new information now available. However, it would also be possible to make significant progress in pursuing the HSCA's finding of conspiracy if information known to be in FBI files were released for public inquiry. Hopefully, with a new administration, the interests of history and public disclosure will break the iron grip of national security.


1 FBI Headquarters file, Murkin King Section 10; Birmingham to Director with copies to Memphis, LA, Mobile / response to Miami report of April 6, 1964

2 FBI Headquarters file, Murkin King Section 10, Director to SAC’s in Birmingham, Memphis and Los Angeles. Order to hold ID checks and leads.

3 It should be noted that over the course of his various legal actions, James Earl Ray would seek counsel from J.B. Stoner. Stoner met with Ray within weeks of his capture, even though he was not serving as his counsel. Later, after Ray’s first court appearance and guilty plea, Stoner would become Ray’s counsel of record. Stoner would also employ one of Ray’s brother’s for “security” purposes. Interestingly, Ray gave the HSCA client-attorney privilege waivers for all counsel, with the exception of Stoner. Equally interestingly, the FBI monitored correspondence from Ray’s brother which indicated that he was contacting a little known lawyer in regard to Ray’s defense; the lawyer in question, Percy Quinn, lived in Laurel, Mississippi (the home of Sam Bowers). Ray’s brother clearly had been referred to him; he noted that the individual was difficult to contact because he had no telephone in either his office or home. In his book on the White Knights, Jack Nelson writes that the Laurel lawyer was known to have acted as an agent for Sam Bowers, having been sent to visit Thomas Tarrants in the prison hospital after his capture – to check on Tarrants, assure him of support and determine to what extent Tarrants was talking. FBI Memorandum, Memphis to Director, Oct 25, 1968; Murkin Headquarters file, Section 72-80. Also, Terror in the Night, Nelson, pp. 194-195; quote below:

“One day hospital officials made an exception to the no-visitors rule and permitted Percy Quinn, an attorney from Laurel, to visit Tarrants. Bowers had dispatched Quinn to check on Tarrants’s condition, assure him of Klan support and learn as much as Tarrants could tell about the ambush.”

4 FBI investigative reports now available indicate following the King assassination, the Jackson FBI office did attempt to verify the location of certain high profile White Knight members including Thomas Beckwith and Danny Hawkins. The records indicate that the office reported that it had accounted for these individuals on the day of the assassination. However, given the lack of detail on actual sources for the verification and the degree to which these individuals had successfully used prepared alibis and arranged fake testimony on earlier occasions, the authors feel this remains an open question.

5 In fact we may well be able to document more such White Knight efforts. As this article is being written new documents posted to the Mary Ferrell MLK archive in early April 2009 have revealed what appear to be two more such efforts, with one involving an attempt to recruit an experienced criminal figure to shoot Dr. King.

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