On the day before he died 44 years ago, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was sitting on a plane in Atlanta, waiting to takeoff, when the pilot announced that there was a bomb threat. The flight, he said, would have to be delayed until all baggage could be properly inspected.
Like many threats against King’s life, this one proved to be a false alarm. But over the decade before his murder, King had a number of close calls. In their new book The Awful Grace of God, Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock, two dogged amateur historians, chronicle a dozen assassination attempts against King by white supremacist groups such as the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi and the National State’s Rights Party.
Many of these attempts are well known. But using previously unreleased FBI reports gathered from Freedom of Information Act requests, among other sources, the authors discovered that on at least two occasions, the White Knights, reached outside their tightly knit circles to put bounties on King’s life of up to $100,000. And over the course of more than 350 pages, the authors present an interesting, albeit sometimes jumbled argument, that James Earl Ray—the man who is widely believed to have shot King—was responding to this bounty.
The question of motive has always been perplexing in King’s murder. Most historians believe that a combination of racism and at least the prospect of money impelled Ray—a middle-aged escaped convict with a track record of petty crime—to assassinate King. From there the evidence gets murky. A number of reporters and historians continue to question whether or not he acted alone, and even the Select Committee on Assassinations of the U.S. House of Representatives, found “on the basis of circumstantial evidence” that Ray was likely part of a conspiracy.
Wexler and Hancock remain agnostic on whether or not Ray actually fired the fatal shot.
“He probably did,” Wexler told The Daily Beast in an interview. “But the physical evidence is a morass we didn’t really want to get into.” Instead they simply say that Ray became involved with King’s murder in one way or another after hearing of the White Knights bounty while in prison in 1967.
From the get go, the FBI—the authors say—dismissed the possibility Samuel Holloway Bowers, the head of the White Knights, and J.B. Stoner, the lead lawyer for the NSRP, had links to the King shooting. While others have suggested that each may have played a role, what they missed in the process, Wexler and Hancock say, is that Bowers and other leading supremacists were not merely engaging in disparate acts of “redneck violence” to stop integration. Instead, they were actually part of an Al-Qaeda-like network of “holy warriors,” connected by the traveling ministers, couriers and audiotape distributors.
Uniting them: The teachings of Dr. Wesley Swift, a California-based Christian Identity pastor, who preached that Anglo-Europeans were God’s chosen people and that Jews were evil impostors who manipulated blacks to undermine the white race. While publicly warning their followers of an impending race war, Bowers and his ilk were trying to foment one. They were plotting to kill King in hopes of bringing about Armageddon, the authors say.
Riots did indeed break out in various cities following’s King’s death. Yet as Clay Risen of The New York Times writes in his book A Nation On Fire, these events bore no resemblance to the black versus white type of violence that Swift’s followers had predicted. In fact, in places like Watts, few rioted, having witnessed the destruction of their neighborhoods in 1965.
There is a dearth of evidence that Swift himself plotted to kill King. But his message of racial Armageddon was indeed popular among Bowers and other leading racists of the time. It’s not clear if Stoner was a follower of Swift, but many of his closest associates were, including Joseph Milteer of Atlanta’s White Citizens’ Council, Connie Lynch, a racist Christian Identity pastor and Colonel William Potter Gale, the leader of a West Coast paramilitary group. All, the authors say, citing FBI documents, tried to kill King at one time or another.
Files from the bureau also connect the White Knights, whom the FBI considered the most dangerous of all the Klan groups, to Stoner’s NSRP and their move into Meridian, Mississippi in 1968. And on the day that King was killed, several White Knights said they were attending a meeting with Stoner.
Other factors may have united these supremacists, too. Southern law enforcement believe that at least some of the men were gay. David Garrow, a historian and author of Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about King, says, “The bureau knew that about Stoner, and Bowers lived openly with another man. It’s a very perplexing, multilayered world.”
Yet as Garrow and others point out, Wexler and Hancock’s theory is not airtight. “I’ve always thought Stoner was involved in the assassination,” says Hampton Sides, the author of Hellhound on His Trail, which chronicles the manhunt to capture Ray. “He was a real dirt ball. But so far, no one has found the smoking gun.”
To their credit, Wexler and Hancock are straightforward when they are forced to speculate, especially when it comes to how Ray may have gotten mixed up with followers of Swift. There have long been reports of bounties put on King’s life. Yet through FOIA requests the authors learned of two new plots against King, both by groups outside the White Knights’ inner circle.
The first: A 1964 effort by the White Knights to pay Donald Sparks, a member of the Dixie Mafia, $13,000 to kill King in Mississippi, using a high-powered rifle. According to FBI reports, Sparks waited in a motel in Jackson to receive payment for the hit, but the White Knights were never able to come up with the money. After King’s murder, two different sources described this plot to the bureau. But “the FBI did only a superficial investigation,” the authors write.
Three years later, the White Knights put out another bounty on King. Once again they turned to outsiders. Only this time, Stoner and the NSRP party appear to be involved, according to the authors. Similar bounties were circulating around several different prisons during the 1960s. What’s new is that Wexler and Hancock tracked down a former prisoner name Donald Nissen, who had told the FBI of a bounty of $100,000 put on King by the White Knights. Nissen said he learned of the contract just before his release from Leavenworth penitentiary in Kansas from a fellow inmate named Leroy McManaman, who allegedly knew Sparks and was connected to the Dixie Mafia.
The FBI largely dismissed Nissen’s account, but Wexler and Hancock make a convincing case that this was a mistake, and that the bureau should have more thoroughly investigated it. This same bounty, according to FBI documents, was circulating in the same prison that James Earl Ray resided in prior to his escape in 1967.
Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, whose reporting has helped put a number of former Klansmen behind bars, praised the authors for uncovering this new information: “They’ve been able to track down many of the details to prove the Klan indeed offered a bounty,” he told The Daily Beast.
Still, many questions remain. How, for instance, could the White Knights who were saddled by legal fees, come up with $100,000 in 1968, but not $13,000 in 1964?
One possible scenario is that the money came, at least in part, from union workers in Atlanta by way of Milteer, the member of the city’s White Citizens’ Council, who collected it under the pretenses of resisting integration. Still the evidence for this comes from one anonymous source, so its veracity remains uncertain.
In an interview Wexler agreed that more evidence is needed. In fact, the book is most convincing in arguing that a Civil Rights Cold Case unit should investigate King’s murder, and that all files pertaining to the investigation should become publicly available.
“The files should be released, especially the fingerprint files,” says Mitchell. “And there’s no reason not to run the existing fingerprints through the FBI’s extensive database.”
The reality is that the circumstances surrounding King’s murder were undeniably strange. A drifter and would be porn director, Ray was mercurial and far from credible. Two months after King’s death, the Illinois-native was caught in London, trying to make enough money to get to Rhodesia. He was quickly extradited back to the U.S, where one of his first moves was to try and hire Percy Quinn, Bowers’ private attorney, who didn’t have a publicly known office or phone number at the time. Quinn turned him down, and Ray entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to more than 90 years in prison. Days later, he fired his lawyer, Percy Foreman and recanted, saying that a mysterious man named Raoul set him up. Eventually he hired Stoner as his attorney.
“He [Ray] went to his grave with all these secrets and lies,” says Sides.
Though far from perfect, The Awful Grace of God brings us closer to understanding what Ray attempted to conceal.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misquoted historian David Garrow about the prevalence of homosexuality in the supremacists.