Review

An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King, by William F. Pepper, Verso, 320 pp., $25

William Pepper’s book An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King makes us realize that extra-judicial executions such as those carried out by the Colombian military and their proxies, the paramilitaries, are not exclusive to South America.

When I told a friend, who has spent her life working in the Black community, that we now had proof positive that government agents had planned, orchestrated, and covered up the murder of King, she soft-peddled my news flash, saying, “The Black community knew it all along.”

It isn’t only the boldness of proclaiming the United States guilty of King’s murder that makes Pepper’s book remarkable; it is his documentation and evidence. Pepper sought to follow the rule of law that state security forces trampled.

HarperCollins was ready to publish the book up to the last moment, according to Pepper (who was convicted assassin James Earl Ray’s attorney from 1988-98), but the publisher wanted him to remove the chapter that implicated government officials, from the Pentagon on down to the Memphis Police Department.

Denying that the full force of the state was directed at King would have changed Pepper’s book. Harper-Collins wanted Pepper to present the execution of Martin Luther King, Jr. as merely a mafia hit. Pepper, to his credit, refused to buckle under the pressure.

The most unsettling question pertains to what happens now. Pepper’s book points to the need for a Truth Commission.

It is a daunting task to deal with a state (whether Colombia or the United States) that kills the leaders who would challenge the status quo. King planned to bring one million dispossessed to “take up a tent city residence in the capital and lobby Congress for long over due social legislation.” This was a capital crime.

In Colombia, those killed were working for the poor. In the U.S., similarly, those killed represented a challenge to the status quo on behalf of the poor.

The Colombians have full knowledge of if not the identities of, the killers and the corporate and military forces behind them. With Pepper’s book, although in many cases the actual identities of the conspirators are not revealed, the book indisputably proves that the killer was sponsored and protected by aspects of military and security forces inside the government.

Hopefully, William Pepper’s heartfelt pursuit of the truth, amidst the best efforts of the state to suppress his investigation and prevent the trial that would have freed James Earl Ray, will do much to inform Americans about the country in which they live.

U.S. citizens will likely be behind Latin Americans and Europeans to respond to Pepper’s matter-of-factly grim assessment, expressed in his Epilogue: “The corporate-dominated economy and the now clearly transnational corporate state [have] consolidated their power over almost every aspect of public and private life.

“Footsoldiers like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, the ever-dutiful Bush family … working with the timeworn International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and ultimately with the new engine of globalization, the World Trade Organization, [have] ensured that the interests of capital were nowhere endangered by the needs of the world’s three billion poor to eat, have shelter, clothing, sanitation, medical care, and education.”

In order to prevent populist measures, the United States (using a lot of hired hands) was willing to execute Martin Luther King. They got away with it.

– Mansur Johnson (mansurjohnson@hotmail.com)

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