United in a holy cause to kill King, this network of racist militants were the likely culprits behind James Ear Ray and King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4th, 1968.
Hancock and Wexler have sifted through thousands of pages of declassified and never-before-released law enforcement files on the King murder, conducted dozens of interviews with figures of the period, and re-examined information from several recent cold case investigations. Their study reveals a terrorist network never before described in contemporary history. They have unearthed data that was unavailable to congressional investigators and used new data-mining techniques to extend the investigation begun by the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
The Awful Grace of God offers the most comprehensive and up-to-date study of the King assassination and presents a roadmap for future investigation.
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About the Author
Larry Hancock graduated from the University of New Mexico with a triple major in anthropology, history, and education. He has worked on a variety of historical research projects, including November Patriots and Someone Would Have Talked. He lives in Oklahoma.
Read an Excerpt
Using evidence from previously unpublished FBI and police informant files as well as new sources uncovered by their own investigation, the authors reveal:
A detailed chronology of over nine serious plots on Dr. King’s life, including documented connections between the individuals organizing the attacks.
Newly revealed connections between the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi and contract killers from the Dixie Mafia, including evidence showing the use of these criminals in a series of plots against Dr. King.
New interviews with an informant who provides additional detail on a $100,000 bounty on Dr. King’s life, offered by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, whose members were reported as suspects to both the FBI and Congress.
Evidence that money was raised in Atlanta, Georgia to pay for attacks on Dr. King and new information tracing the money through Jackson, Mississippi, home of the White Knights.
Informant reports implicating specific individuals involved in the actual April 4, 1968, King Memphis murder conspiracy.
Details of connections between James Earl Ray, and members of the extremist network, including new information connecting Sam Bowers and the White Knights to the purchase of James Earl Ray’s rifle.
Evidence that bounty offers on King’s life, linked to Southern businessmen and racists, were known to James Earl Ray prior to his prison escape.
For the first time, the likely identity of “J.C. Hardin” the mysterious figure who visited and called James Earl Ray only days before Ray began to stalk Martin Luther King Jr.
On April 4, 1968, a single shot from a .30-06 rifle killed the Reverend
Martin Luther King Jr. as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in
At the time, Robert F. Kennedy was campaigning for the Democratic
presidential nomination and learned of King’s death as he landed in Indianapolis
to deliver a campaign speech to a predominantly black neighborhood.
Aides feared a riot, and the chief of police told Kennedy that he could
not guarantee his safety, but rather than inciting a riot, Kennedy’s brief,
heartfelt speech was credited with helping to prevent racial riots in the
aftermath of King’s assassination and is widely considered one of the best
speeches in American history. From the back of a flatbed truck, Kennedy
offered the following words: In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are blackconsidering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsibleyou can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarizationblack people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.
And then Kennedy quoted his favorite poet, Aeschylus: Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
We chose “the awful grace of God” as the title for this book because
it captures not only the enormous feeling of loss at the death of Martin
Luther King Jr., but also the need for an understanding of what happened
that fateful day in Memphis. Who murdered King? Was there a conspiracy?
What was the motive? And what do the answers to those questions mean
for our nation’s history and our future? Forty years after King’s assassination,
we are still looking for that wisdom.
The day following the assassination, while criminal investigations were
just beginning, United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark stated to
the press that there were no indications of conspiracy in the shooting, “all
of our evidence at this time indicates that it was a single person who committed
this criminal act.”2 Within two weeks of the killing, the Federal
Bureau of Investigation’s manhunt had begun to focus on James Earl Ray,
an escaped convict with a long history of theft and armed robbery. Ray had
never been involved in militant racism, and his history revealed only a single
constanta continuing quest to score big money. At the time of the King
shooting, Ray had been on the run for over a year. He had traveled to both
Canada and Mexico in unsuccessful efforts to continue his escape overseas.
Almost two months to the day after King’s assassination, Ray was taken
into custody at a London airport.
Both the director of the FBI and the attorney general of the United
States singled out James Earl Ray as the lone killer of Dr. King. No motive
was ever given for his act. Ray avoided trial with a guilty plea, which he
later claimed had been orchestrated by his attorney as the only option for
his escaping the death penalty. Ray’s own remarks, his lack of any apparent
motive, and the fact that he had no personal history of racist activism or connection to racist groups left much of the public with the impression
that there must be more to the King assassination, that the story had not
been fully told.
That view was solidified by the findings of the House Select Committee
on Assassinations (HSCA), formed in 1976 to reexamine the assassinations
of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. The committee’s report on Dr. King’s death was presented in
1978. Their wording was precise; their message clear:
The committee believes, on the basis of the circumstantial evidence available
to it, that there is a likelihood that James Earl Ray assassinated Dr.
Martin Luther King as a result of a conspiracy. . . .
The Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation
performed a thorough investigation into the responsibility of James
Earl Ray for the assassination of Dr. King, and conducted a thorough
fugitive investigation, but failed to investigate adequately the possibility
of conspiracy in the assassination.
The HSCA tried to move beyond the FBI conspiracy investigation, but
its resources were limited, it’s timing perhaps ten years too late. In many
instances HSCA investigators were thwarted by the fact that key individuals
were deceased. Witnesses who provided reports in 1968 were too frightened
to even confirm their original stories, much less expand on them, and
named suspects were simply unwilling to talk. And although the HSCA
had subpoena power, they lacked the leverage that came with the realistic
threat of jail time, perjury charges, or negotiated immunity to get results.
Beyond that, the HSCA inquiry also suffered from some of the same
fundamental problems that prevented the FBI from adequately investigating
Ray’s possible involvement in a conspiracy in the first place. In 1968 and
well into the 1990s, many key informant files were held in strict confidence,
not available for exchange between individual FBI field offices, not available
to local or state law enforcement or prosecutors, and not offered to the HSCA. Director J. Edgar Hoover had an established policy of not sacrificing
informants in civil rights cases that he viewed as being unwinnable in
It has only been through a series of successful cold-case prosecutions
over the last decade that we have come to realize the extent of such information
and its implications for the King investigation. Reports that the FBI
produced in the King murder investigation suggest that the local offices had
little understanding of the background and associations of the information
they produced. Challenges such as compartmentalization of information;
the inability to correlate names, aliases, and organizations; and the lack of
any of today’s data-mining capabilities all fundamentally handicapped individual
field offices in the pursuit of leads suggesting any potential conspiracy
in the murder of Dr. King.
With access to FBI files and oral histories that only became available
over the past decade, with information from successful cold-case prosecutions,
and with our own primary source interviews, we are now able to relate
a much more comprehensive view of the events that we feel led to Dr.
Part I: The Conspirators exposes an insidious subculture that was united
in the goal of killing Dr. King and whose efforts we follow over a period
of some five years. It reveals that certain individuals involved in that effort
were far more organized, disciplined, and shrewd than had been commonly
pictured in existing literature. We trace the efforts of that network by examining several plots against Dr. King, which were deadly serious and, in some
cases, quite sophisticated.
The individuals and groups you encounter in this book had indeed been
targeting Dr. King for years. They viewed King as the ultimate target because
his death represented their best opportunity. Their goal was massive
riot and bloodshed, racial violence on a national scale. They wished to kill
Dr. King in a dramatic and symbolic manner, a killing that would put an
end to any thought of compromise and concessions between liberal white
America and an increasingly nationalistic and frustrated black America.
There is no longer any doubt about the existence of such a network or of
its ongoing effort to kill Dr. King. What remains are questions about its direct
or indirect connection to the actual murder of Dr. King in Memphis, about the
role of James Earl Ray, and the possibility of conspiracy in the assassination.
In Part II: The Accused, we closely follow James Earl Ray from his
escape in 1967 from the Missouri State Penitentiary to the steps that seem
to have brought him in touch with an offer he couldn’t refuse, an offer that
led him to begin stalking Dr. King in Selma, Atlanta, and finally Memphis.
We explore a number of bounties offered on Dr. King’s life, raising the
possibility that James Earl Ray may have been only the final individual to
respond to such an offer.
And in Part III: The Crime, we examine the possibility that nothing
in Memphis actually came about, for either Ray or the plotters, as was intended.
And we direct our attention toward investigations and existing FBI
documents that might well help resolve the issue of conspiracy once and
If we are right, our conclusions likely point to a group of violent individuals
who saw King’s murder through the eyes of a much more vengeful
God than the one that inspired the slain civil rights figure to continually
risk his life in the name of peace and mutual understanding. If the Sermon
on the Mount was the religious inspiration for Dr. King, then, for these
calculating, violent men, the book of Revelations was the guiding scripture.
But their version of the end times was far different than anything one would
hear from most preachers on a Sunday. Their hope was for a race war that
would bring on Armageddon itself. For these men, God’s grace had run its
course, and Bobby Kennedy’s soothing words must have seemed like the
calm before the awful storm they desired.
Table of ContentsContents
Foreword by Gerald K. McKnight
Part I: The Conspirators
Chapter 1: Targeting Martin Luther King Jr
Chapter 2: Holy Cause and Devilish Disciples
Chapter 3: Propaganda of the Deed
Chapter 4: Inner Circles
Chapter 5: Outer Rage
Chapter 6: The Klan and “The Man”
Chapter 7: Outside Options and Contract Killers
Part II: The Accused
Chapter 8: “I Wasn’t in It by Myself ”
Chapter 9: Ray on the Run
Chapter 10: Ray’s Long and Winding Road
Chapter 11: Ray Explores His Options
Chapter 12: Ray Recruited
Part III: The Crime
Chapter 13: Murder in Memphis
Chapter 14: Aftermath: Missed Evidence and Closing Arguments
Appendix A: Loose Ends and Open Questions
Appendix B: Conflicting Conspiracy Theories