Thursday, April 03, 2008

40 Years Later, Conspiracy Theories Persist About Martin Luther King's Assassination

Despite Findings of Congressional Probe of Civil Rights Martyr's Death in Memphis in 1968, Some Still Insist That James Earl Ray Did Not Act Alone; House Committee's Records on Assassination to Remain Sealed for 20 More Years

Actor Samuel L. Jackson (center) paints the upper balcony of ...

Actor Samuel L. Jackson (center) paints the upper balcony of the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, in front of Room 306, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated 40 years ago Friday. Accompanying Jackson are Kevin Frazier (left) of TV's "Entertainment Tonight" and Niani Omotesa (right), a volunteer who works for the nearby Hampton Hotel. The motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum. (Photo: Robin Weiner/AP)

By Bartholomew Sullivan
Memphis Commercial Appeal

WASHINGTON -- Thirty years after the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded its exhaustive review of the 1968 Memphis shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., its chairman, Louis Stokes, stands by its findings.

"No one to my knowledge has come forth with any factual evidence of any kind that would in any way controvert the findings of our committee," Stokes, now a retired lawyer in both Cleveland and Washington, said in an interview with The Commercial Appeal on the eve of the 40th anniversary of King's assassination on Friday.

"I don't know of one single piece of evidence that anyone has brought forth that has tainted our findings," said the Ohio Democrat.

But some have looked at the evidence and drawn different conclusions.

The committee found it "ironic" that the FBI's ongoing surveillance and harassment campaign against King helped prove that the bureau did not have foreknowledge of his 1968 assassination in Memphis.

It found that James Earl Ray did not harbor "deep-seated racial animosity" sufficient to motivate the killing, but that he might have been lured by a potential financial reward.

And it found evidence that others -- including a now-dead lawyer in St. Louis -- were offering a payoff to kill King, which proved there was a conspiracy, and that Ray, a Missouri prison escapee, might have been aware of it.

Why Was Memphis Cop Removed From King's Motel Just Before Assassin Struck?

But it also determined that Ray was the lone assassin and that neither the FBI nor the Memphis police were complicit in the killing. It made that finding despite concluding that indefensibly "substandard" Memphis police work may have aided Ray's escape.

Perhaps most notably, the committee found plausible a strange explanation for the removal of a black Memphis police detective from his post outside the Lorraine Motel just hours before the killing.

Some say the committee ignored evidence or drew the wrong conclusions.

John Judge, founder of the Coalition on Political Assassinations and one who believes, like some in King's family, that Ray did not pull the trigger, scoffs at the panel's work. "Look at what they call conclusions," said Judge. "They can't determine anything except that Ray did it."

Others, like Ray lawyer William F. Pepper, in his 2003 book, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King, suggest the committee overlooked evidence it collected that "frequently conflicts with conclusions of the [committee's] report itself."

House Committee's Investigation Was Troubled From the Start

The investigation got off to a rocky start and its first two chairmen resigned before Stokes got to nod from then-House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (D-Massachusetts). He said there was "a lot of politicking to overcome the general feeling that the committee was going to be an embarrassment and the best thing to do was to shut it down."

Stokes knew King before the assassination. King had organized the Cleveland voter registration drive that led to Stokes' brother, Carl, becoming the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city in November 1967 (After leaving office in 1971, Carl Stokes moved to New York, where he became a popular local TV news anchorman. He died of cancer in 1996).

Stokes and King waited in his brother's campaign headquarters for results to come in that night. Despite that intimacy, Stokes said he was determined to approach the investigation without preconceived views.

Stokes said he spent eight hours at the Brushy Mountain prison with Ray before the hearings. He said that, by the time of his testimony, "I probably knew as much about James Earl Ray as he knew about himself. In interrogating him, I knew the type of cunning and evasive individual I'd be cross-examining."

"He was a very cunning criminal," Stokes recalled. "He was someone who was going to try by any means to keep from admitting that he had killed Dr. King."

The investigation looked into the possibility that the FBI and the Memphis Police Department were involved in the assassination, but concluded they were not.

King's Security Detail Was Withdrawn Night Before Shooting

It took testimony both in closed and open session on the issue of the removal of Ed Redditt, a black Memphis police detective, from an observation post next to the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, just two hours before the assassination. It also looked into the transfer of two black firemen from the observation firehouse.

King's plane had been met the day before by a four-man security detail led by Inspector Don H. Smith. The detail followed King throughout his first day in Memphis, but was withdrawn the night before the shooting because of King's party's perceived lack of cooperation, according to the committee report.

Redditt maintained surveillance of the motel on April 3 and 4 until he was called back to headquarters to meet with then-Police Chief James McDonald, Fire Chief Frank C. Holloman and an unidentified Secret Service official. They placed him under police protection (Melvin Burgess, later the city's police director, was part of the detail) because of reports that Redditt was the target of death threats.

Representative Harold Ford Sr. (D-Tennessee), who was a member of the select committee and who agreed -- then declined -- to be interviewed for this story, reportedly asked Redditt in closed-door testimony whether he was planning to seek elective office.

Detective Has Always Questioned Reason for His Removal

Redditt, now 77 and a track coach at the Fayette Academy in Somerville, has always been suspicious about his removal from the scene. In a recent interview, Redditt said the suggestion that he was unsympathetic to the striking sanitation workers was part of a strategy to discredit him.

And when he finally returned to work, he said: "Nobody said one earthly thing about a contract [killing]."

The committee report summarized its Redditt investigation with the conclusion that he'd been "removed because his superior perceived real danger to his safety." It added: "The committee found that Redditt's removal was not part of any plot to facilitate the assassination of Dr. King."

The post-assassination operation of the Memphis Police Department also came under review. The department was criticized for its "inexcusable" failure to have a contingency plan for trouble in or near the Lorraine Motel, for an "indefensible" failure to post an all-points bulletin for the suspected white Mustang get-away car and for failure to set up road-blocks on major arteries leading out of Memphis.

"Nevertheless, the committee found no evidence that the substandard performance of the Memphis police in the aftermath of the assassination was part of a conspiracy to facilitate the assassination of Dr. King or the escape from Memphis of James Earl Ray," the final report said.

Assassination Records to Remain Sealed for 50 Years, Despite Clamor for Release

It may be another 20 years before anyone sees the 600,000 pages of the committee's sealed records on the King assassination.

Some, including academics, researchers and at least one member of that committee, think that's too long, especially for a committee that concluded in 1978 that King's death was the result of a conspiracy.

"King belongs to history, and the incident certainly does," said John Judge, co-founder of the Washington-based Coalition on Political Assassinations, which is meeting this weekend in Memphis.

"I don't think it was a good idea for them to have locked up the information in the first place for 50 years when you're coming out with as explosive a conclusion as they did: that there's a probably conspiracy...and then say nobody can look at the files for 50 years."

But the committee that looked at both the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and of King in 1978 simply complied with existing House rules, said its chairman, Louis Stokes, a retired congressman from Ohio.

"We had a lot of raw material that would have tended, if released publicly, to defame, embarrass and otherwise effect innocent people," Stokes said. "You cannot just release materials like that, so we followed the House rules and sealed those files under the 50-year rule."

Efforts to Make Records Public Fail

Over the years, efforts to make those sealed records available have been attempted through Freedom of Information Act requests and federal legislation. In 2005, then-Representative Cynthia McKinney (D-Georgia) picked up 64 co-sponsors, including many members of the Congressional Black Caucus, for a measure that would have opened the King files as well as sealed court files and grand jury records, too.

[Neither Representatives Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tennessee) nor Bennie G. Thompson (D-Mississippi) signed on as co-sponsors, records show.]

The McKinney legislation, with an identical Senate bill sponsored by John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), died in committee.

Shortly after he took office last year, Represenataive Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) had legislation drafted by his staff and circulated to Congressional Black Caucus members, the King family, and others, that would have unsealed the files. After a few months, he quietly withdrew plans to introduce it. There was no support.

Stokes said Cohen asked him about it. "He called me and I told him I did not know of any necessity for the release of those files," Stokes said.

Cohen said the public deserves to know, but he won't pursue it without more support.

Representative Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.), who chaired the subcommittee on the King assassination, has called for more than a decade for the investigative files to be unsealed, saying "there won't be any closure on any of this" until they are. Now retired from Congress and a Washington-based Baptist minister, he did not respond to repeated requests to elaborate.

Judge, the assassination researcher, said he's not indifferent to the King family's wishes or to privacy concerns of other Civil Rights leaders who might be unflatteringly mentioned in the archived material.

But he said provisions can be written into the law to protect those interests while releasing relevant historical records. "Are we going to wait for everyone to be dead before we find out anything about what happened?" he asked.

# # #

Volume III, Number 24
Special Report Copyright 2008, Scripps Newspaper Group, Inc.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Monday, March 31, 2008

Clinton Debacle on Bosnia Shows Politicians Can No Longer Ignore Power of the Internet

Former First Lady Kept Insisting She Came Under Sniper Fire in Bosnia Despite Newspaper Stories to the Contrary and Backed Off Only After Video Footage Proving her Claim to be False Was Posted on YouTube -- and Picked Up By the TV Networks

In this Monday March 25, 1996 file picture, first lady Hillary ...

It wasn't just video footage that contradicted Hillary Rodham Clinton's claim that she came under sniper fire while visiting Bosnia in 1996. In this file picture, the then-first lady kisses Emina Bicakcic, 8, from Sarajevo, who dedicated a poem to her shortly after her arrival at the Tuzla Air Base. Clinton's daughter Chelsea (left) accompanied her on their one-day visit to the U.S. troops stationed in Bosnia. After weeks of inisiting her story was true, Clinton now says she made a mistake. But the controversy raises serious issues about her credibility. (AP file photo by Doug Mills)

By Frank Rich
The New York Times

Most politicians lie. Most people over 50, as I know all too well, misremember things. So here is the one compelling mystery still unresolved about Hillary Clinton’s Bosnia fairy tale: Why did she keep repeating this whopper for nearly three months, well after it had been publicly debunked by journalists and eyewitnesses?

In January, after Senator Clinton first inserted the threat of “sniper fire” into her stump speech, Elizabeth Sullivan of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote that the story couldn’t be true because by the time of the first lady’s visit in March 1996, “the war was over.”

Meredith Vieira asked Clinton on NBC's “Today” show why, if she was on the front lines, she took along a USO performer like Sinbad. Earlier this month, a week before Clinton fatefully rearmed those snipers one time too many, Sinbad himself spoke up to The Washington Post: “I think the only ‘red phone’ moment was: Do we eat here or at the next place?”



The Bosnian girl who famously read a poem to Hillary Rodham Clinton during her 1996 visit to the war-torn country is shocked -- and her countrymen infuriated -- that the former first lady claimed to have dodged sniper fire that day.

Meanwhile, Clinton faced increasing odds Monday as a new opinion poll showed rival Barack Obama consolidating his nationwide support.

Emina Bicakcic, now 20 and studying to become a doctor, told the New York Post she stood on the tarmac at the air base in Tuzla, greeted Clinton and even had time to share the lines of verse she'd written - all without fear of attack from an unseen enemy.

"I was surprised when I heard this," Bicakcic said, referring to Clinton's assertion that she braved snipers upon landing, ducking and sprinting to military vehicles.

Other Bosnians said they had one of two reactions to Clinton's debunked action-hero account of her visit: laughter or anger. "It's an exaggeration," said former acting President Ejup Ganic, who was present during Clinton's visit. "No one was firing. There were no shots fired."

A Gallup tracking survey indicated Obama, perhaps benefiting from the Bosnia flap, widened his lead over Clinton among Democrats nationally by 52 percent to 42 percent -- his largest lead of the year so far. This marks the first time either candidate has held a double-digit lead over the other since early February, when Clinton led Obama by 11 percentage points, the polling firm pointed out.

-- AP, Agence France-Presse


Clinton Clung to Story Despite Mounting Evidence to the Contrary

Yet Clinton was undeterred. She dismissed Sinbad as a “comedian” and recycled her fiction once more on St. Patrick’s Day. When Michael Dobbs fact-checked it for The Post last weekend and proclaimed it worthy of “four Pinocchios,” her campaign pushed back.

The Clinton camp enforcer Howard Wolfson phoned in to “Morning Joe” on MSNBC Monday and truculently quoted a sheaf of news stories that he said supported her account. Only later that day, a full week after her speech, did he start to retreat, suggesting it was “possible” she “misspoke” in the “most recent instance” of her retelling of her excellent Bosnia adventure.

Since Clinton had told a similar story in previous instances, this was misleading at best. It was also dishonest to characterize what she had done as misspeaking — or as a result of sleep deprivation, as the candidate herself would soon assert. The Bosnia anecdote was part of her prepared remarks, scripted and vetted with her staff.

Not that it mattered anymore. The self-inflicted damage had been done. The debate about Barack Obama’s relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright was almost smothered in the rubble of Clinton’s Bosnian bridge too far.

Debacle Triggers Questions of Clinton's Credibility on Iraq

Which brings us back to our question: Why would so smart a candidate play political Russian roulette with virtually all the bullet chambers loaded?

Sometimes only a shrink can decipher why some politicians persist in flagrantly taking giant risks, all but daring others to catch them in the act (see: Spitzer, Eliot). Carl Bernstein, a sometimes admiring Hillary Clinton biographer, has called the Bosnia debacle “a watershed event” for her campaign because it revives her long history of balancing good works with “ ‘misstatements’ and elisions,” from the health-care task force fiasco onward.

But this event may be a watershed for two other reasons that have implications beyond Clinton’s character and candidacy, spilling over into the 2008 campaign as a whole. It reveals both the continued salience of that supposedly receding issue, the Iraq war, and the accelerating power of viral politics, as exemplified by YouTube, to override the retail politics still venerated by the Beltway establishment.

What’s been lost in the furor over Clinton’s Bosnia fairy tale is that her disastrous last recycling of it, the one that blew up in her face, kicked off her major address on the war, timed to its fifth anniversary. Still unable to escape the stain of the single most damaging stand in her public career, she felt compelled to cloak herself, however fictionally, in an American humanitarian intervention that is not synonymous with quagmire.

Clinton's Gaffe Now Ranks With Lynch, Bush Myths on Iraq

Perhaps she thought that by taking the huge gamble of misspeaking one more time about her narrow escape on the tarmac at Tuzla, she could compensate for misvoting on Iraq.

Instead, her fictionalized derring-do may have stirred national trace memories of two of the signature propaganda stunts of the war: the Rambo myth the Pentagon concocted for Private Jessica Lynch and President Bush’s flyboy antics on the USS Abraham Lincoln during “Mission Accomplished.”

That Clinton’s campaign kept insisting her Bosnia tale was the truth two days after The Post exposed it as utter fiction also shows the political perils of 20th-century analog arrogance in a digital age. Incredible as it seems, the professionals around Clinton — though surely knowing her story was false — thought she could tough it out.

They ignored the likelihood that a television network would broadcast the inevitable press pool video of a first lady’s foreign trip — as the "CBS Evening News" did on Monday night — and that this smoking gun would then become an unstoppable assault weapon once harnessed to the Web.

Lesson: Never Underestimate the Power of the World Wide Web

The Drudge Report’s link to the YouTube posting of the CBS News piece transformed it into a cultural phenomenon reaching far beyond a third-place network news program’s nightly audience.

It had more YouTube views than the inflammatory Wright sermons, more than even the promotional video of Britney Spears making her latest “comeback” on a TV sitcom. It was as this digital avalanche crashed down that Clinton, backed into a corner, started offering the alibi of “sleep deprivation” and then tried to reignite the racial fires around Wright.

The Clinton campaign’s cluelessness about the Web has been apparent from the start, and not just in its lagging fund-raising.

Witness the canned Hillary Web “chats” and “Hillcasts,” the soupy Web contest to choose a campaign song (the winner, an Air Canada advertising jingle sung by Celine Dion, was quickly dumped), and the little-watched electronic national town-hall meeting on the eve of Super Tuesday.

Web surfers have rejected these stunts as the old-school infomercials they so blatantly are.

Flap Over Obama's Pastor Is Quickly Overshadowed

Senator Obama, for all his campaign’s Internet prowess, made his own media mistake by not getting ahead of the inevitable emergence of commercially available Wright videos on both cable TV and the Web. But he got lucky. YouTube videos of a candidate in full tilt or full humiliation, we’re learning, can outdraw videos of a candidate’s fire-breathing pastor.

Both the CBS News piece on Clinton in Bosnia and the full video of Obama’s speech on race have drawn more views than the most popular clips of a raging Wright.

But the political power of the Bosnia incident speaks at least as much to the passions aroused by the war as to the media dynamics of the Web. For all the economic anxiety roiling Americans, they have not forgotten Iraq.

The anger can rise again in a flash when stoked by events on the ground or politicians at home, as it has throughout the rites surrounding the fifth anniversary of the invasion and 4,000th American combat death.

This will keep happening as it becomes more apparent that the surge is a stalemate, bringing neither lower troop levels nor anything more than a fragile temporary stability to Iraq. John McCain’s apparent obliviousness to this fact remains a boon to the Democrats.

Obsession Over Race Inside Beltway Ignores Reality of Generational Shift

The war is certainly a bigger issue in 2008 than race. Yet it remains a persistent Beltway refrain that race will hinder Obama at every turn, no matter how often reality contradicts the thesis. Whites wouldn’t vote for a black man in states like Iowa and New Hampshire; whites wouldn’t vote for blacks in South Carolina; blacks wouldn’t vote for a black man who wasn’t black enough.

The newest incessantly repeated scenario has it that Obama’s fate now all depends on a stereotypical white blue-collar male voter in the apotheosized rust-belt town of Deer Hunter, Pennsynvania.

Well, Obama isn’t going to win every white vote. But two big national polls late last week, both conducted since he addressed the Wright controversy, found scant change in Obama’s support. In the Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, his white support was slightly up. As the pollster Peter Hart put it, this result was “a myth buster.”

The noisy race wars have failed to stop Obama just as immigration hysteria didn’t defeat Senator McCain, the one candidate in his party who refused to pander to the Lou Dobbs brigades.

The myth that’s been busted is one that Obama talked about in his speech — the perennial given that American racial relations are doomed to stew eternally in the Jim Crow poisons that forged generations like Wright’s. Yet if you sampled much political commentary of the past two weeks, you’d think it’s still 1968, or at least 1988.

For 'Netizens,' The War Is Still the Number One Issue

The default assumptions are that the number of racists in America remains fixed, no matter what the generational turnover, and that the Wright videos will terrorize white folks just as the Willie Horton ads did when the GOP took out Michael Dukakis.

But politically and culturally we’re not in the 1980s — or pre-YouTube 2004 — anymore. An unending war abroad is upstaging the old domestic racial ghosts. A new bottom-up media culture is challenging any candidate’s control of a message.

The 2008 campaign is, unsurprisingly enough, mostly of a piece with 2006, when Iraq cost Republicans the Congress. In that year’s signature race, a popular Senate incumbent, George Allen, was defeated by a war opponent in the former Confederate bastion of Virginia after being caught race-baiting in a video posted on the Web.

Last week Mrs. Clinton learned the hard way that Iraq, racial gamesmanship and viral video can destroy a Democrat, too.

# # #

Volume III, Number 23
Guest Commentary Copyright 2008, The New York Times Company.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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