The facts of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination used to be straightforward. He was shot dead on the balcony of his motel in Memphis, Tennessee, at 6pm on April 4 1968. The assassin was James Earl Ray who had rented a room over Jim's Grill in a building opposite the Lorraine Motel in which King was staying. After the shooting, Ray was seen leaving the building and driving speedily away in his white Mustang. As he left the area of the killing, he dumped a package containing a rifle, binoculars, newspaper and a beer can, among other items, all of which had his fingerprints on. These prints were quickly matched with the alias under which he had bought the rifle and a telescopic sight in Birmingham, Alabama. At Ray's apartment, the police discovered a map on which King's home and church had been highlighted. The fact that he hated African-Americans was established. After he was captured in London's Heathrow Airport while attempting to fly to Brussels on a false Canadian passport, he was returned to the US, tried and imprisoned.
But there were soon rumblings of disagreement. Whether Ray acted alone or whether he had even committed the assassination has been increasingly disputed since that dark day when America's greatest civil-rights leader was murdered.
In this book, An Act of State , lawyer William F. Pepper, who has been close to the case professionally, argues that King was killed not by a lone assassin but as part of a complicated conspiracy involving government agencies. The motive for this alleged conspiracy is said to have been King's overwhelming popularity - as an opponent of the Vietnam war and organiser of the impending Poor People's Campaign, and as the pivotal figure in the civil-rights movement.
Since Pepper's controversial thesis depends significantly on how much importance the US government really accorded King in the 1960s, it is necessary to consider his career and the history of the civil-rights movement in the US. From the 1950s, King was a key figure in organising the grass roots through churches, local branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which galvanised the nation beginning with the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, through to the passage, a decade later, of civil-rights and voting-rights legislation backed by enforceable federal authority.
Perhaps the most important of King's many achievements was to end the viability of partial membership of the US polity. As he wrote from prison:
"Anyone who lives inside the US can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds." This proposition gave impetus to the ideology of "one people" nationalism as a standard for US political integration.
King sits, therefore, with a handful of nation-builders who have made America. In the 19th century these people were often racists who, in their keenness to expand the American frontier, rode roughshod over Native Americans' rights to land, articulating an exuberant but exclusionary nationalism epitomised by Theodore Roosevelt's rhetoric and writings. The spreading doctrines of group hierarchy and eugenic purity, complemented by rulings from a compliant Supreme Court, made their vision of a "one-nation" America quite limited. Those excluded from this nationhood had to formulate ideologies and strategies that both protected them against oppressive practices and provided the resources to transcend the polity's exclusions by remaking them. By the beginning of the 20th century, the excluded embraced Native Americans, Chinese and Japanese-Americans, and African-Americans. One response was the doctrine of "racial uplift", another the separate world of the Tuskegee Institute created by Booker T. Washington.
Some early African-American leaders flirted with the idea of leaving America for destinations in Africa or Latin America, but most wanted to be accorded their rights of citizenship in the US. The Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s suggested one method of accommodating themselves to the mainstream culture. But the anger of black American veterans of the first world war at the prejudice displayed towards them by the US authorities was a more representative political response. The war had seemed to such leaders as W. E. B. du Bois to be an opportunity to demonstrate African-American loyalty, but it turned out to mark no significant change in the circumstances of African-Americans.
However, the war did signal one powerful development in the nation-building process - its international dimension. In proclaiming the Fourteen Points for a global order of liberal states, Woodrow Wilson opened America's domestic race relations to international scrutiny. By the second world war, scrutiny was inescapable.
It was at this time that two of America's greatest nation-builders came into conflict and laid the basis for the civil-rights reforms of the 1960s.
The first was Franklin Roosevelt. Despite his warm inclusive language, he had no particular commitment to civil-rights reform, as his casual support of Japanese-Americans' wartime internment revealed; but he had excellent political judgement.
His acuity was tested by A. Philip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In 1941, Randolph organised the March on Washington movement. It threatened a massive demonstration by African-Americans in Washington DC unless the federal government did something about the employment prospects of black Americans.
After intense negotiations in the White House between presidential staff and African-American representatives, Randolph called off the march in exchange for a presidential executive order establishing a committee on fair employment practices and proscribing discrimination against blacks in defence and public-sector jobs. This was a momentous achievement, in which the strategy anticipated the use of the boycott and non-violence pioneered by King and employed by Rosa Parks in Montgomery in 1955.
But the importance of Randolph as a nation-builder went deeper. His March on Washington movement was open only to African-Americans, not because Randolph aspired to a separatist organisation but because he believed discrimination against whites was a necessary step through which African-Americans could reject the inferiority maintained by white discrimination against blacks.
Randolph thus created the circumstances for both the civil-rights movement led by King and the black-power movement of Malcolm X. All three black leaders understood that the struggle was international, not just domestic.
In his autobiography, Malcolm X worried that "the American white man has so thoroughly brainwashed the black man to see himself as only a domestic 'civil-rights' problem that it will probably take longer than I live before the Negro sees that the struggle of the American black man is international". Malcolm X and King paid with their lives for stirring up this complex situation and generating inevitable hatred in their attempts to recast American nationhood.
To return to James Earl Ray, Pepper took up his case in 1988, convinced that he had been wrongfully convicted. Although Ray died in 1998, Pepper went to court against those he concluded had committed the murder. In 1999, a jury in Memphis concluded that King was assassinated in a way not yet fully established or explained. The jury supported Pepper's case for a wrongful death civil action suit brought against Lloyd Jowers, owner of Jim's Grill, and his alleged co-conspirators.
An Act of State is well paced, detailed and intriguing. Pepper sets out his challenge to the conventional narrative about King's murder and provides a compelling account of the inadequacies of the initial police investigation.
He itemises numerous leads the investigators failed to follow, including the identity of "Raul", the shadowy figure Ray himself identified as his sponsor. And of course he locates the assassination of King in the context of the civil-rights leader's opposition to the Vietnam war and his involvement in the Poor People's Campaign (an organisation echoing the style of Randolph's March on Washington).
Pepper is shrewd enough to realise how difficult it would be to establish any governmental involvement in the killing of King. "It is naive to believe that if the government - at various levels - assassinated Dr King, any investigation of the assassination which becomes an investigation of the government by the government could produce the truth. They can never admit what has been done."
Readers are therefore left to confront two issues. First, do they concur with the Memphis jury's decision in 1999 that King's death remains insufficiently explained? The answer is likely to be positive, given the trial evidence laid out by Pepper. Second, are the motives attributed to the conspirators convincing? Here, the reader may wonder whether King's anti-war and poor people's campaign could have been sufficient grounds for such an orchestrated act of state violence. Did other prominent civil-rights protesters face a similar fate? If not, why not?
What alarms Pepper most is that the implications of the jury finding have yet to be given proper political attention in the US. The shameful and unjustifiable conspiracy alleged in this book against one of the country's greatest nation-builders surely deserves fuller investigation.
Desmond King is professor of American government, University of Oxford.
An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King
Author - William F. Pepper
ISBN - 1 85984 695 5
Publisher - Verso
Price - £17.00
Pages - 334