[3 April 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“And the shot rang out: a-payow!” Recalling the dreadful evening that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Reverend Billy Kyles still looks struck. “It was loud,” he says, “real loud.” He’s standing on the Lorraine Motel balcony where it happened, talking with Soledad O’Brien for first installment of CNN’s Black in America series, “Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination.” The show traces the events that brought King and James Earl Ray together on 4 April 1968, and presents doubts about the official explanation.
“Years later, questions still linger and fester,” says O’Brien right off. While much of the show remembers King’s career, the familiar landmarks as well as some details that aren’t so typically recounted, like King’s joking about his death with his “inner circle,” all understanding the risks he took. Andrew Young remembers that he was stabbed in Harlem at a book signing: just after a brief look at a black and white photo of King looking caught off guard in his hospital bed, Young smiles, “When they removed the knife, they left a scar in the shape of a cross.” Though King talked about being killed, Young says, “He never let us get nervous about it, and he was never nervous about it.” Instead, he took on extra engagements—speeches, meetings, and marches—as needs arose. Over footage of clashes in city streets, O’Brien narrates, “His nonviolent protests brought out the worst in white America, police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham in 1963, Alabama state troopers beating back protestors on the bridge in Selma in 1965. And their violence would strike a flint on the nation’s conscience.”
It’s not clear just what that “strike” was, or how the “nation” had a conscience. Certainly, violence against Civil Rights workers and demonstrators persisted, even as it was exposed on television and moved President Johnson to push through legislation that granted voting rights and equal education to black Americans, at least in theory. King continued to press for other changes, having to do with economic and educational systems, arguing that poverty oppresses populations insidiously, like racism. As King was injured and arrested during his work—illustrated here in news photos—he made use of the media, print and TV, to promote the cause. The more sensational the official response, the more sympathetic the demonstrators appeared.
As the movement grew, the official response became more surreptitious—though hardly secret. As O’Brien reports here, the Attorney General’s office (Robert Kennedy) signed off on wiretaps in October 1963, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI took up the mission with a vengeance. Young recalls that King and his followers found listening devices in motel rooms and once, Ralph Abernathy found one in a church, at which point he spoke directly to “Little Doohickey”: “I want you to tell President Johnson, and I want you to tell J. Edgar Hoover, and I want you to tell George Wallace, I want you to tell everybody that no matter what they think, we are going to be free.”
Famously, of course, the surveillance did pick up sounds of a sex act in a hotel room, and Hoover became obsessed with King’s deviance and sexual behavior. David Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, notes that the FBI also began leaking stories concerning what the agency and Hoover perceived as movement leaders’ associations with the “Red Menace” to “discredit” King. He began receiving missives from the Bureau, at least one suggesting that he kill himself out of shame: “You are an evil abnormal beast,” the typed letter reads, “Satan could not do more. King, you are done.” Such “official” activities suggest that Hoover’s fixation was pathological. As John Lewis laments, Hoover “saw Dr. King as a threat to the order of American society.”
Along with the Bureau’s ongoing activities, “Eyewitness to Murder” tracks Ray’s route to Memphis, it allows the case that has circulated for years since the assassination, that Ray was not the killer, or at the least, he was supported by a greater organization, though whether it is the FBI or the mafia, some ugly combination of the two or some other group with money and planning capacities, is not entirely resolved. Highlighting documents, inexplicable events, conflicting witness accounts, and Ray’s own changing stories (when captured, he pled guilty, and then, once he was in prison for life, recanted), the show focuses on those lingering and festering questions.
A career and decidedly smalltime criminal, Ray had escaped from a prison in Missouri in 1967, just three weeks after King made his historic and provocative anti-war speech at the Riverside Church. Ray made his way to Montreal, where, he later told William Bradford Huie (who published He Slew the Dreamer in 1978), he met the mysterious “Raoul.” According to Ray, after he performed a series of jobs for Raoul (smuggling “something” over the border into Detroit, for instance), he was instructed to rent a room in Memphis “for three or four days.” (Here O’Brien looks at Ray’s boarding house room, now encased in glass at the National Civil Rights Museum, headed by Beverly Robinson, who recounts that other boarders heard him moving furniture on the day of the assassination.)
“Eyewitness to Murder” doesn’t make only one case; rather, it includes interviews with men who knew Dr. King, researchers with a range of experiences, and people with questions. Black Memphis policemen and firemen remember that the security for King that day was reduced, compared to previous visits to the city, and that black firefighters were reassigned to other areas, away from the Lorraine Motel. None of this information is categorical. But some of it was left unaddressed in conventional accounts. According to William Pepper, who became Ray’s lawyer following his conviction, there remain doubts that Ray acted alone. A clip of King’s son Dexter meeting with Ray illustrates the historical turn, when the family publicly took a stand in favor of further investigation and in support of Ray’s assertions that the case was more complex than the official version. “Eyewitness to Murder” provides various accounts of the event and the case against Ray, some from eyewitnesses. That it doesn’t reach a definitive conclusion speaks elliptically and effectively to the experience of being “black in America.”