Martin Luther King Family Still Convinced Assassination Was ConspiracyBoston Globe
Jan. 15, 2007
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Martin Luther King Day is a profoundly reflective time for the Rev. Mike Clark. The pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church in Watertown finds himself examining how King shaped the arc of his own life and how Clark, in turn, helped rewrite the story of King's death.
"When I was 19 and he was killed, I was just a white kid in a small town in Pennsylvania," said Clark, 56. "If you told me on the night he was assassinated, 31 years later I'd be in court with his widow and his children trying to find out the truth about who killed him, I would've thought that was madness."
But that's just what Clark did in 1999 when he was asked by the King family's attorney, William Pepper, to serve as media spokesman during a wrongful death civil suit filed against a Memphis cafe owner, Lloyd Jowers.
"The family had come to believe that James Earl Ray was not the assassin of Martin Luther King and believed [Jowers] was part of a conspiracy to kill him," said Clark.
"On December 8, 1999, the jury reached a verdict which really revised history's judgment about this murder," said Clark of the conclusion that Jowers had hired another man, not Ray, to murder King on April 4, 1968.
"The official story, until that point, and still the official story, is that James Earl Ray, alone and unaided, a bitter white man, killed Martin Luther King," said Clark. "In fact, [Ray] was a patsy in that case and was in jail almost 30 years exactly, until his death."
Ray recanted his original confession and maintained his innocence for most of his life.
Sitting with King's family in the courtroom, Clark recalled his fascination with the testimony of witnesses recalling that fateful day.
"It was a very interesting story, just in human terms, that some people had been waiting 30 years to tell their piece of the story," said Clark. "It was amazing human drama to see those 70 people, almost none of them were conspiracy theorists -- they were just saying, 'Well, on that day, here's what I saw' or, 'On that day, here's what I heard.'
"One of the key moments for me was when Andrew Young testified," said Clark, referring to the civil rights activist and former UN ambassador.
"Young, from the witness stand, looked at Dexter King, who was 5 or 6 at the time his father died, and he said, 'You've probably wondered over the years why those of us who worked so closely with your dad didn't do more to find out what happened to him,' " Clark said.
" 'Your father used to say to us, when I'm killed, don't spend a lot of time trying to find out what happened, just don't let the movement die,' " Clark recalled Young saying.
Clark will participate in Watertown's annual Unity Breakfast tomorrow and lead a talk Friday at the Commander's Mansion about King's life and death.
He believes the civil suit was a watershed moment in revising King's legacy and validating suspicions long held by many inside and outside King's inner circle.
"It makes an enormous difference to American history if Martin Luther King was murdered by an embittered, single white man or if he died at the hands of a conspiracy," he said.
"I think for the family, they really believed [that] with the verdict, they had done what they could to bring the truth to the American people," he said. "Part of what the family also felt they were doing was, it wasn't simply a personal matter, it was also putting on the historical record 4,000 pages of evidence," said Clark.
"They felt that the jury siding with them was at least an indication that they had put their time and energy in on something that was worthwhile and, in a sense, was the best way of remembering their husband and father."
For Clark, most King observances today offer a diluted portrait of King and his beliefs, especially in the last year of his life.
"For those who were in power in the United States government in 1968, Martin Luther King was not someone you made a holiday about," said Clark. "Martin Luther King was viewed as a threat to those in power" for his criticism of the Vietnam War and of the growing gap between rich and poor, he said.
Ordained 30 years ago, Clark spent two years at Fisk Memorial United Methodist Church in Natick before coming to Watertown over two years ago as interim minister. His wife, Christine Elliott, is also a Methodist minister.
"Were he alive today and were he still saying the things he had said and doing the things he was doing, he would still be a threat to people who like the world the way it is, the way the world functions on behalf of a small group of people," said Clark. "I think he would still be a challenge to that worldview, and appropriately so."