“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963
Today, millions of individuals celebrate the observance of the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The United States Government established, and continues to observe, a federal holiday on the third Monday of every January to observe his birthday.
There is an irony implicit in those facts (as in so many others, these days). King and his family (not to mention all who are wise enough to value justice and know its general importance) were victims of injustice—even if the man accused of murdering King was guilty.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born Michael King, Jr. in Atlanta on January 15, 1929. (His father changed his own and his son’s name in honor of Martin Luther.) He is well known and celebrated for his tireless efforts for genuine racial equality (including his nonviolent protests in Montgomery, Alabama and his 1964 march in Washington, which culminated in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech). In his preeminent “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” the celebrated intransigent lawbreaker wrote that he reluctantly accepted the term “extremist” and that the relevant issue was not whether or not an individual is an extremist but what kind of extremist he is. Many critics of his leftist politics nonetheless admire his commitment to passive civil disobedience and his success thereat, as well as his commitment to respect among individuals of all races (in contrast to racist “anti-racism” activists). As the 1960s dragged on, he became more controversial: his radical socialism distanced him from liberal non-leftists, and his criticism of the Democratic Party’s Vietnam War effort drove a wedge between him and his putatively “liberal” (i.e., Democratic Party) supporters. Racists offered bounties for his head. Someone sent him a letter threatening to expose his alleged marital infidelities if he did not commit suicide. (Some believe the letter is linked to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.) On the evening of April 3, 1968, he delivered his famous “promised land” speech in Memphis, Tennessee, reassuring his supporters that they would reach his and their goals even if he did not live to see the day.
The following day, someone killed him while he was standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. One shot rang out at approximately 6:00 PM Central Standard Time. He was thirty-nine. A career criminal and fugitive named James Earl Ray quickly became the prime suspect in the crime. He was apprehended about two months later at London’s Heathrow Airport on June 8, 1968.
Much has been written about The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his putative assassin (and much of it has been largely ignored). King’s life, achievements, virtues, and vices are beyond the scope of this piece. (As a personal aside, I have long admired his virtues while acknowledging his flaws, political and otherwise. There are also vague, loose connections between us. I was born on the fifteenth anniversary of the start of his Birmingham Campaign and the tenth anniversary of his last full day and “promised land speech.” He received his Doctor of Divinity degree at the venerated institution for higher learning that almost destroyed what was left of my mind—fortunately I have recovered it and then some. All of the above is coincidence, of course, but it leads to a personal interest in the personage I might not otherwise have had.) Ray’s guilt or innocence is also beyond this piece’s scope—though the reasonable doubt of his sole culpability (even if he acted alone) is not. Ray may or may not have shot King, and, if he did, he may or may not have acted alone. A tremendous, decades-long injustice was perpetrated and maintained anyway. Considering the continued reverence for King by this culture and the representatives of its government, the injustice is particularly ironic.
Ray initially pleaded guilty to King’s murder to Tennessee judge Preston Battle; Battle sentenced him to a lengthy prison sentence. Ray’s famous attorney, Percy Foreman, publicly commented that, guilty or not, his client probably would have been convicted. All he could do was plea bargain and save his life. Ray almost immediately fired Foreman, recanted his plea, and requested a trial. Battle was considering Ray’s request for a trial when he suddenly died of a heart attack. Battle’s replacement denied his request. For the rest of his life, Ray and his defense attorneys maintained his innocence and tried to obtain a trial. (Ray’s last attorney, William Pepper, was a friend of King’s and his family. Pepper represented the King family, who believe Ray was not guilty, in a successful wrongful death civil suit against alleged conspirator Loyd Jowers.) Ray died in prison in 1998 at the age of 70.
There is a fairly convincing circumstantial case against Ray (who was an unsympathetic, disreputable person to begin with). At the time of the assassination, he was an escaped convict. He had a criminal record with some serious offenses (including armed robbery). He had never been accused of killing or injuring anyone. He did not have much (if any) reputation for being a racist, as even Gerald Posner (author of Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.) conceded that his motive would have had to have been money. There is no evidence he knew about or tried to collect the bounties offered for King, but he was certainly in Memphis at the time of the assassination with a rifle he had recently purchased. He had rented a room in a boarding house with a communal bathroom that overlooked the assassination site, the Lorraine Motel’s balcony. Skeptics aver that it would have been difficult and unlikely, especially with Ray’s lack of firearms knowledge and experience, to successfully shoot King from that bathroom window, but almost anything is possible. Someone dropped a duffel bag with Ray’s rifle and other incriminating, identifying objects (including his prison radio with his inmate serial number scratched into it) in the doorway of a business in the neighborhood of the Lorraine Motel and the boarding house around the time of the assassination. Guy Canipe, the business’s owner, was an important witness—and may have been the primary reason Tennessee authorities were determined Ray would never receive a trial. (More on Canipe shortly.)
In the 1990s, one of Ray’s defense attorneys discovered a superannuated Tennessee law that stipulated that, in the event that a defendant requests a trial and the presiding judge dies, the defendant would automatically receive a trial. Ray’s defense team immediately brought this Tennessee law to the attention of the Tennessee court. A judge ruled that too much time had elapsed between the initial request for a trial and the citation of the obscure law. The judge decided that, in this case, the government would not observe that particular law on its own books.
Around this time, another judge, Joe Brown (who would later gain some fame on television), presided over Ray’s interminable case. He ordered test firings on the alleged murder weapon (which had apparently never been performed). (Every gun leaves striation marks on every bullet it fires. The marks are unique, like fingerprints and DNA. A murder bullet can, at least in theory, be conclusively matched to the gun that fired it. The bullet that killed King could have and should have been compared to test bullets fired from Ray’s rifle to see if it matched them.) A Tennessee law enforcement official testified to Brown that the results of initial test firings were “inconclusive.” (“Inconclusive” is sometimes a law enforcement euphemism for “results we didn’t want.”) When Brown asked why a process that was supposed to be dispositive was inconclusive, the official testified that the gun probably needed to be cleaned. Brown ordered him to clean it and retest the weapon. Shortly thereafter, Brown was removed from the case by a higher court; officials determined he was not “impartial” and was biased in favor of Ray (even though he is a black man who referred to Ray as a bigot). The tests apparently never took place.
A few years later, Ray died. As far as the officials of the State of Tennessee were concerned, any attempt to further investigate King’s murder died with Ray.
Did Ray murder King? If not, did he help someone who did (wittingly or otherwise)? I do not know. I do know that those whose purported responsibility and interest was to ensure that justice transpired in this case defaulted. Justice was not served—even if Ray, alone, was guilty.
There is a platitude—almost a cliché—that it is better to let ten (or one hundred) guilty men free than to falsely impression one innocent man. Many Endarkenment platitudes are false. (The namesake of this blog defined “platitude” as a statement that is a. believed by everyone to be true and b. not true.) With all due respect to the Sage of Baltimore, this platitude is true.
The representatives of the governments that insist on “justice, “due process,” and the “rule of law” did not follow those ideals in this instance. They arguably violated Tennessee law by refusing to grant Ray a trial. They certainly violated ethics and common sense by refusing to adequately test the alleged murder weapon.
All of the above would be true if there were more evidence against Ray and no reasonable doubt about his guilt. But there is reasonable doubt about his guilt. There is not time and space here to recount all of it. The state’s sole witness who initially claimed to (briefly) see a man come out of the boarding house’s bathroom with a rifle immediately after the assassination was extremely intoxicated at the time. His credibility was impugned by his own friends and family. He initially identified Ray as the man he saw. Later, when shown a photograph of Ray on national television, he denied the man he saw was Ray (to the reporter’s palpable shock). Most of the state’s case consisted of his testimony and the duffel bag found in Guy Canipe’s doorway with contents that linked Ray to the alleged murder weapon also found in the bag. Canipe vehemently insisted that the bag (with the rifle in it) was in the doorway at least ten minutes before the assassination. He offered to testify in Ray’s defense in the event of a trial. Perhaps he was mistaken. It is just as likely that he would notice something as unusual as a mysterious duffel bag dropped in his doorway before the equally unusual gunshot rang out—and recall the correct order in which he witnessed those events.
Given the above facts and the state’s repeated inability to match Ray’s rifle to the bullet taken from King’s body, anyone interested in justice should have supported a trial in this case. Given this culture’s continual vocal support of justice and Martin Luther King, Jr. (including the continued display of Lady Justice in the nation’s courts and observance of a government holiday for the civil rights leader), many more people (in government, media, and elsewhere) should have supported a trial in this case. The standard of evidence in a criminal trial is “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Perhaps it was the case that Ray was guilty and would have been acquitted at a trial anyway due to reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds. That would have been less of an injustice than what actually transpired (even if Ray was guilty).
As most people know, murder is a state crime. The disposition of an individual accused of murder in the state of Tennessee is the legal responsibility of the State of Tennessee. However, the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution supposedly guarantees due process rights to citizens and supposedly empowers the federal government to interfere when state governments violate rights or fail to safeguard them and uphold due process (it was ratified at a time when rights violations by federal and state governments were comparatively rare). It is certainly customary for the federal government to investigate (or, at least, go through the motions of investigating) high profile, controversial cases … even those that do not involve citizens who are subsequently honored by federal holidays. There are at least three Tennessee streets named after King (including one in Memphis). Neither the State of Tennessee nor the United States Government facilitated justice in the case of King’s death. It is not entirely consistent to repeatedly and extensively (some might say disingenuously) honor him considering the egregious injustices committed in this case.
“Justice” is a broad abstraction with all kinds of implications that cannot be properly understood (or even acknowledged) without the context of a rational epistemology (whether in an individual or in a wider culture context). Until the early 1960s or so (prior to modern philosophy seeping down from academia to government and media and saturating “Progressive”-influenced education), American culture (including its legal system) was primarily rational and primarily lived up to its stated purpose of justice. Until that time, more people (from the government to the media to the man on the street) apparently understood that it is in no one’s interest to avoid trials for “probably guilty” people to save taxpayer expenses or to reassure members of the public that “the system works” with “closure” and finality at the expense of a continuing injustice. (As the epigraph above from his famous letter illustrates, Martin Luther King, Jr., a principled man from a more principled time, understood that.) Until that time, responsible officials may have been as concerned about the prospect of the guilty perpetrators roaming free for all the innocent inmates taking their places than the prospect of the acquittal of a potentially guilty defendant (regardless of whether or not there was a falsely-accused defendant in this particular case). Subsequently, irrational philosophy (including the militant anti-principled expediency of pragmatism) infected the culture (including its legal system and media). The decades-long aftermath of the King assassination and the injustice perpetrated against King, Tennessee residents and other Americans (whose government failed them in the name of “justice”), and even Ray (even if he was guilty) are some of the consequences. (This case is just one example of an ongoing government injustice—and it is hardly one of the most egregious. I have addressed this topic before and may re-publish one expounding the philosophical issues involved.) Another consequence is the public’s apathy (which is a necessary condition, both an effect and a cause, of the Endarkenment).