Who Shot King? Investigations Mixed With Doubt

On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tenn. Former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, who chaired the special House Select Committee on Assassinations, discusses doubts that still loom over the investigations into King's murder. Some still believe his true assassin was never caught.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley, in for Michel Martin. And this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the Barbershop guys share their thoughts on King's legacy. We'll let you eavesdrop on that conversation. But first, in 1968 there were other assassinations of political figures throughout the world. But it was on this day, 40 years ago, that a sniper's bullet shocked America and shrouded the Civil Rights Movement, as Martin Luther King, Jr. lay bloodied and dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. In the 40 years since King's death, there is still controversy over his slaying, even though a congressional committee, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, conducted an exhaustive review of the shooting. Former congressman Louis Stokes was the chairman of the committee. From 1976 to 1979, it looked into both the assassinations of the President John Kennedy and Reverend King. And Congressman Stokes joins us in the studio to talk specifically about the King investigation. Congressman, welcome.

Former Representative LOUIS STOKES (Democrat, Ohio; Chaired the Special House Select Committee on Assassinations): Thank you, Cheryl. It's a pleasure to be here.

CORLEY: You know, we hear a lot about Martin Luther King, during this day in particular, every year, Congressman. But you knew him. You were one of his peers. So, before we actually begin to talk about the investigation, why don't you tell me what you remember about him?

Former Representative STOKES: Well, he was a great man. He often came to Cleveland, and I had a chance to get to know him then. In fact, in 1965 and in 1967, he came to Cleveland and registered black voters as they had never been registered before. And in both of those years, 1965 and 1967, was when my brother, Carl, first broke ground by running for mayor in Cleveland. Dr. King spent time with us here. He was in campaign headquarters the night that Carl won in 1967.

CORLEY: Mm hm.

Former Representative STOKES: So I got to know him real well. And as I said, he was a great man.

CORLEY: Well, for many of us his death is such a vivid event. But for others it's something that they learn about from textbooks, or from their parents, or from libraries. What was the conclusion of the committee surrounding King's death?

Former Representative STOKES: Well, we concluded that James Earl Ray had been the assassin, that he was in fact the person who had pulled the trigger to the rifle that killed Dr. King. We also found that there was the possibility of a conspiracy, though we were not able to identify the co-conspirators.

CORLEY: There's a lot of people who believe the committee missed a lot or left information out when it came to that conclusion. Didn't investigate, perhaps, the direction from which the shot came or have some concerns that Dr. King's hadn't been autopsied. And there's a dispute over that committee finding that James Earl Ray was even the shooter, truly. So, people, you know, have really investigated this just as the committee conducted its investigation. Why do you think those questions are still out there?

Former Representative STOKES: Well, what you said is very true. There are often very lingering questions around assassinations. One of the typical reasons is that in both cases - that is, the Kennedy assassination and the King assassination- we were asked to investigate two murders, one of which had occurred 15 years earlier, the other had occurred eight years earlier. Now, in most murders the police get a chance to investigate or begin their investigation immediately after it has occurred, or shortly thereafter. In our case, we began investigating murders 15 years and eight years after.

CORLEY: But you're saying you thought you came to it too late?

Former Representative STOKES: What - I'm saying that the lateness of it always creates a problem, because persons who we would have loved to have talked to in the investigation, some of them were dead. Evidence had been destroyed. There were many things that we would have loved to have done, in an investigation of this nature, had we been given the opportunity to have investigated from the beginning.

CORLEY: The committee report talks about the failings of the FBI and the Department of Justice, and it's, of course, common knowledge that the FBI spied on Dr. King, but there have been suggestions and charges, really, that there was some government involvement involved in the assassination. The Select Committee, of course, didn't come to that. But I was wondering what the committee did consider conspiratorial in this case?

Former Representative STOKES: Sure. One of the reasons that Congress did begin the investigation and appoint the committee to conduct the investigation was at the request of Mrs. Coretta King. There were many, many allegations and rumors surrounding the death of Dr. King, and she asked the Congress if they would investigate these various rumors. One of the allegations surrounding the King death, in particular, was that there were allegations that our own government, in particular the FBI, had killed Dr. King or been involved in a conspiracy to kill Dr. King. In our findings, we did investigate thoroughly. We criticized the FBI rather severely for the manner in which they went about the investigation. We criticized the fact that they never approached it from the viewpoint of a conspiracy. They assumed from the beginning that James Earl Ray was the sole person, and they sought him in that investigation. In our findings, we found that, even though we criticized them severely, that the FBI was not involved in the assassination of Dr. King.

CORLEY: Congressman, one last question. Were you satisfied with it? Do you think there was a conspiracy?

Former Representative STOKES: I believe that our findings, in which we say that there was the possibility of a conspiracy, I rely upon that, I doubt that as a part of our findings, but I also feel very strongly that James Earl Ray was the assassin. He was the person that pulled that trigger. And I was thinking about that. There's been no evidence in the last 20 years since we conducted that investigation, nothing to controvert any of our findings.

CORLEY: The lone person.

Former Representative STOKES: Well, either way, because a conspiracy - possibility of conspiracy was a part of our findings.

CORLEY: Louis Stokes is a former Congressman who chaired the House Select Committee on Assassinations which investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Congressman, thanks again for joining us.

Former Representative STOKES: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

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