martin luther king jr.

The Strange, Tangled Web of Assassination Plots Against Martin Luther King

Before he was actually murdered, the civil rights legend was targeted for at least a decade by vile racists of all stripes, according to a new account.
05 April 2018, 5:55am
Left Image: Mugshot of Samuel Bowers, head of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Photo courtesy the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Center Image: MLK the year of his death. Photo by 
Bettmann/Contributor. Right Image: James Earl Ray months before his death. Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

In 1964, as the civil rights movement began to crest and Congress moved to pass historic laws addressing systemic racism, Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most beloved political leaders in America. That put a target on his back. And according to a new book from the duo who previously dug into conspiracy theories surrounding the American icon's eventual murder, it was around this time that the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan put out a contract hit on Dr. King.

The only problem? Despite the ambitions of their leader, Samuel Bowers, the white terrorist group couldn't come up with $13,000.

In their new book, Killing King: Racial Terrorists, James Earl Ray, and the Plot to Assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr., out this week to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of King’s death, investigative researchers Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock describe a tangled web of plots behind MLK’s murder, one they argue dated back to the late 1950s. Among other things, they allege the FBI failed to pursue leads before and after that crime that would have suggested the eventually-convicted assassin, James Earl Ray, was far from a lone wolf.

VICE talked to the authors by phone to find out why they felt the need to dig deeper into the assassination, how groups and so-called movements with names like the Dixie Mafia, Christian Identity, and the White Knights were involved, and whether the white supremacist moment we're in right now really parallels that of 1968.

VICE: Besides the anniversary marker, why probe a crime that’s seemingly pretty cut-and-dried?
Stuart Wexler: About 12 years ago, I was helping Larry do some research related to Bobby Kennedy's assassination and we started coming up with this fascinating angle involving an individual associated with the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi. The allegations that connected these people to the Robert Kennedy assassination seemed groundless, but looking deeper there seemed to be a potential connection to the King assassination. We sort of ventured forth to see if this would actually lead somewhere—and it did very much lead somewhere.

One thing that comes across plainly in the book is that this wasn’t a suddenly successful plot in '68—organized racists had been after King’s blood for a decade or longer, right?
Stuart Wexler: There were several bounties that were circulating throughout the country and especially within the prison system. Initially, the bounty that we focused most of our time on started out as a bounty that was fronted to a group called the Dixie Mafia by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi. The bounties start rather small in the late 1950s but they go up from $10,000 to $25,000 to $50,000 to $100,000 by the time you hit '67 and '68. All these bounties and assassination plots against King were all one to two steps removed from each other. The common thread that connected them together was this really radical version of racist Christianity called Christian Identity.

How did James Earl Ray—the man actually convicted of the murder, who investigators tend to agree actually carried out it out—get involved in the plot? Was he motivated chiefly by money or racial animus?
Larry Hancock: It's very clear from Ray's history that he didn't necessarily like black people, but he was never motivated to even go so far as to join a racist group or to be involved in anything overtly racist. What you see in his career is a series of criminal acts like burglary and armed robbery that landed him in jail, but as soon as he managed to get out of jail he'd go back to doing the same thing. It was all about money for Ray. After he escaped prison the last time, he tried to leave the country and go overseas. First through Canada and when that didn't work out he tried through Mexico. Ultimately, he ended up back in Los Angeles, running out of money. The people involved with this plot were aware of him. They had known him when he was in prison. They finally made contact with him and brought him into the plot.

One character who stands out here was Reverend Wesley Swift, the leader of Christian Identity crowd. Who would you compare him to in the annals of American life?
Stuart Wexler: Thanks in part to Henry Ford and the Dearborn Independent, [this ideology] was sort of cemented after World War II, and it basically said that Jews and people of color were not really human beings worthy of Christian consideration. In fact, they were Satanic, the tools of Satan, and were part of a cosmic conspiracy against white Christians.

The person who made this popular was Wesley Swift: a very charismatic west-coast minister who was a combination of Rush Limbaugh and Father Coughlin. He had an enormously popular radio show that espoused Christian Identity beliefs that circulated in an informal social network of these racist radicals across the country. A big part of what he was talking about was that the end of times was coming. For the Christian Identity folks, the end of times is a race war. His followers were trying to make that race war happen.

Along with Swift’s Identity crowd and Bowers’s White Knights, there was at least one more, wackier sect in play here, right?
Larry Hancock: The White Knights of Mississippi, Samuel Bowers’ folks, had been involved with people from the Dixie Mafia for a number of years. They used them to obtain weapons and would contract bombings from Dixie Mafia folks. They'd had those kind of connections for a number of years, but in 1964 that they ramped it up with a contract to kill Dr. King. The Dixie Mafia was only a mafia to the extent that they were a social and criminal social network that would farm jobs out to each other. If for some reason they weren't available, they had contact points where they could actually circulate the jobs and get a percentage or get the next job on the table. The White Knights worked with Dixie Mafia figures for of years. That shows up in the FBI files.

One thread here is your argument that the FBI uncovered leads that established the conspiracy, but failed to pursue them. Could they really have stopped this, though?
Stuart Wexler: The FBI gets a tip in the summer of 1967 from a former prisoner, Donald Nissen, about a bounty offer on Martin Luther King's life. The FBI might not have had access to the same kind of data mining that we have access to now, but they should've at least asked some basic follow up questions that they did not ask. That’s a big problem. Remember that King's assassination created mass chaos in the country and the Attorney General came out with the party line that it was one lone nut, in part to try and pacify the county. Once they get their minds wrapped around the idea that it's James Earl Ray, it's only a matter of time before they start shutting down leads too.

They should've been giving serious follow up consideration to the person that we looked into, Donald Nissen, whose story was a pre-assassination story. They should have given it, not only more time pre-assassination, but they could have given it more time post-assassination. In the pre-assassination phase, they simply were at times quite frankly incompetent, and in the post-assassination phase there's quite a bit of pressure all around for them to close down conspiratorial angles and focus solely on Ray as the shooter.

How do you think the white supremacist moment we're in right now, with Trump and the Alt Right, compare**s to what went on back then in the late 60s?** Larry Hancock: What's happening now is an enabling thing. Whenever these folks are able to get broad attention, as we saw during the 1960s, more recruiting happened. In 1967, the White Knights recruited young people. They used these people basically as their terrorist foot soldiers. They were young, relatively naive, and easily manipulated. It was the groups of older, more experienced radicals who actually were able to recruit young people like this and send them out on major terror attacks.

I'm afraid that's exactly what we're seeing now. If you look at the connections of some of the recent church shootings and school shootings, you will find that these are young people who have been radicalized by the same sort of racist, nativist network that has the same footprint that it did back in the 1960s.

How alarmed are you at the current state of race relations in America?
Stuart Wexler: There’s this giant continuum of Klan violence from the time the Klan was formed in the later 19th Century until the present. Wesley Swift’s influence on white supremacy is so profound that it's now in the ether of what the white supremacist movement breathes. Specifically the focus on a race war. This wasn't something that you saw as part of the motivation for racial violence before the 1960s. But in 1968, that's what we believe motivated the people to kill King, and in 2016, virtually everybody who commits these racist acts, people like Dylann Roof, they're talking about race war. That's because Wesley Swift’s Christian Identity ideas, over a period of five decades, filtered into the white supremacist movement. Even the groups that say they're not Christian Identity or that broke away from Christian Identity, this notion of a race war is very profound.

Learn more about the duo's new book, out this week, here.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.