ALISON STEWART, Host:
Forty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave what would be the last public speech of his life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH "I'VE BEEN TO THE MOUNTAINTOP")
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
LUTHER KING JR: And I don't mind.
STEWART: A string of events brought Dr. King to Memphis that night, April 3rd, 1968. He spoke at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of the city's mostly black striking sanitation workers. Some 24 hours later, on April 4th at 6:01 p.m., he was shot dead by a sniper's bullet at the Lorraine Motel.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)
DAN RATHER: Dan Rather reporting for CBS News from New York. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot to death by an assassin late today, as he stood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
STEWART: On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Civil Rights pioneer, CNN will launch a broadcast and digital initiative called "Black in America: A Look at the Legacy of the King Years and the Current State of African-Americans in the United States."
CNN: The King Assassination." Soledad, thanks for joining us on NPR.
SOLEDAD O: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
STEWART: What was it like? What was the sensation like standing there, looking around, looking at the buildings where his assassin may or may not have holed up?
BRIEN: Because they're all getting ready to go out for that supper, which is why he was out on the balcony anyway. And why Reverend Billy Kyles was standing, you know, just a few feet away. So, to kind of step into a place in history that you've run through your head and read about and heard people talk about but never really been up there in person is a pretty remarkable thing.
STEWART: Let's talk about the structure of the special. You retrace the steps of the man convicted of King's murder, James Earl Ray, and then of Dr. King himself, putting together, sort of, parallel timelines of their path to Memphis, with 40 years of hindsight and a lot of research that you got to do and documents you go to see. Was there anything, in the eyewitness accounts or in the research, that you think would impress even the biggest history buff?
BRIEN: Yeah, you know what I thought was really interesting? And we were able to track down, probably the officer who made the biggest difference in this case, who didn't even realize he had. As you know, there was this report, basically, that the reason the bundle was dropped in the doorway of the rooming house was because James Earl Ray panicked. He saw a police officer coming, had the bundle and...
STEWART: And the bundle had the gun in it as well?
BRIEN: The gun...
STEWART: The blanket.
BRIEN: And it's that moment that become pivotal in what happened since then, which is James Earl Ray drops the bundle, people say, and then this officer - for the first time he discovers that he was that officer was when we told him. Because we were able to piece together all the different testimony and all the different stories over the last 40 years.
STEWART: Oh, what were his eyes like when you told him that?
BRIEN: You know, I thought that he would think of himself as being, you know, so critical in such a positive way. He actually was afraid and said, wow, I'm glad I didn't run into him. I think he would have killed me.
STEWART: The name of the program is "Eyewitness to Murder" and that's one of the strengths of the show. You speak to people, like this officer, who were there when this happened. I want to play this clip of you interviewing the coroner who performed the autopsy on Dr. King.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW "EYEWITNESS TO MURDER: THE KING ASSASSINATION")
JERRY FRANCISCO: The bullet entered at this location on the jaw, passing through the jaw, through the neck, ending up in the back, at this location where my thumb is located.
BRIEN: The bullet came obviously from this direction and what happened?
FRANCISCO: It came from right to left and above downward.
BRIEN: So the bullet fired from that bathroom window.
FRANCISCO: From that bathroom window.
BRIEN: Would that trajectory be consistent with what you described?
FRANCISCO: Yes, it would.
BRIEN: No question about it?
FRANCISCO: Not at all.
STEWART: He was very forthcoming, but I'm curious, who was a more difficult interview among the eyewitnesses?
BRIEN: You know, among the eyewitnesses, I wouldn't say anyone was a difficult witness. One of the most interesting people to interview of that front was James Earl Ray's brother, Jimmy. And partly because he knows crime so well, that I'd say to him, but, you know, what you're telling me contradicts what you said in testimony. He'd say, oh, statute of limitations has run out. I can now say this, I mean, you know...
BRIEN: And he was really interesting. You know, one of the takes on James Earl Ray is that he wasn't the sharpest tool in the tool shed - so how could he? It sort of goes to the conspiracy theory. He couldn't have done it alone because he's not smart enough. You know, here's your average two-bit criminal. Could he have pulled it off alone? And you ask someone like James Earl Ray's brother Jerry. He'll both argue that he was plenty sharp enough, but he didn't do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BRIEN: Not just the gun to a fingerprint, but the gun to the bullet would be great. But they tried 18 times, never able to do it. And all these things lead to these lingering questions.
STEWART: Could you lay out one or two theories, conspiracy theories, that you understand why someone might believe it?
BRIEN: And then, of course, finally, the government hated Martin Luther King so much. They had actually pushed to try and get him to kill himself. So you know, it's not much of a step. It's not that much implausible to think that the government could be involved as well. I understand the people who believe the conspiracy theories.
STEWART: In fact, Dr. King's assistant Andrew Young, of course, former Georgia congressman, a mayor of Atlanta, said he believe King was the victim of a government plot. Let's play a little clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW "EYEWITNESS TO MURDER")
ANDREW YOUNG: I think that there was a determination in very high places that our movement had to stop.
BRIEN: In his mind, a multi-layered conspiracy.
YOUNG: This certainly went as far as the FBI and the Memphis police and the U.S. military.
STEWART: It was fascinating some of the detail about the FBI, the lengths they went to to discredit Martin Luther King.
BRIEN: You know, an outside agitator. We understood fully well that we were being oppressed every day and it didn't require outside help on that. But it's true, I think because of the hatred that the government had for Martin Luther King, which is well-documented, and because of the memo they sent out really hoping he would kill himself - and they were trying to literally destroy him. I don't think it's a big jump to say, well, maybe the government was involved in his assassination.
STEWART: Just about a minute left, Soledad. A very poignant part of the documentary to me was Dr. King's somewhat resignation of the idea that he was going to die a young man. Why did he believe this?
BRIEN: So here's a guy who lived very presently in his life with death all the time. The fire bombings, the overt threats on his life and his family. I think he knew that what he had taken on was very dangerous for him and his associates and it wouldn't be a surprise. I don't think he was predicting his own death before the age of 40, but I think he knew death was around him and it was very likely.
STEWART: Soledad O'Brien is the host of CNN Presents "Black in America." The two-hour premier of "Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination" airs tonight on CNN at nine p.m. Nice to speak with you, Soledad.
BRIEN: As likewise.
RACHEL MARTIN, Host:
Hey, that does it for this hour of the BPP. Thanks for joining us. We're online all the time at npr.org/bryantpark. I'm Rachel Martin.
STEWART: And I'm Alison Stewart. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.