A labyrinthine investigation into conspirators linked to James Earl Ray, convicted assassin of Martin Luther King Jr.
Investigative researchers Wexler and Hancock (co-authors: Shadow Warfare: The History of America's Undeclared Wars, 2014, etc.) dive deeply into an unsavory American underground in which the determination to destroy King ran deeper than commonly remembered. “The solution to King’s murder is simple,” they write. “The same kind of racists who had been trying to kill King for years had finally succeeded that April 4.” Regarding Ray, they note “his role is only one strand in the overall web.” Assembling a chronological narrative, the authors examine an alliance between the violent White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and wealthy businessmen, which offered a bounty on King’s life dating to at least 1964; word spread in Southern prisons, where Ray would learn of it. Ray is portrayed as a money-hungry career criminal, leading to speculation that he pre-empted a larger conspiracy or overstepped his role. Wexler and Hancock suggest that this racist network, reeling from the passage of civil rights legislation, saw King’s death as key to starting a full-scale race war, inspired by the ascendance of Christian Identity, a religion combining anti-black racism with anti-Semitism, and by violent fringe political groups such as the National States’ Rights Party. The authors claim these factors have been underexamined, arguing that adherents “viewed King as an agent of the Satanic-Jewish conspiracy.” While Klansmen ramped up a campaign of violence around 1967, King “shifted his priorities to issues of social and economic justice,” lessening his support among mainstream Americans and black radicals questioning nonviolence. As for Ray, the authors meticulously reconstruct his wanderings before King’s murder, showing a hapless fugitive rather than a committed terrorist: “Events in Memphis do not suggest a well-planned conspiracy, certainly not if Ray was the designated shooter.” Their account is clear, though reliant on supposition and a dizzying cast of unsavory characters.
A fascinating and disturbing look at complexities underlying a shameful historical epoch.