Tuesday, May 4, 2010

PBS Documentary Maintains The Faith: Roads to Memphis

While this is a primarily a JFK research site, I must differ a bit and consider the assassination of Martin Luther King. Last night was shown on the PBS show American Experience, a documentary, Roads To Memphis, about King’s assassination and paralleling the lives of Martin Luther King, the great civil rights leader and orator, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (back when you had to do something to earn it), and James Ray, a down and out career criminal and general loser.

As usual, we get the same rehashed story of drifter Ray. You know the drill, he escapes from prison, goes here and there, and then somehow gets the bug to kill the MLK for the same reasons they claim Lee Oswald allegedly did--delusions of grandeur. After all, that is all the motive an under-achiever needs, right? So the story plays itself out as always in an endless loop of King appearing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, getting shot, and off Ray goes on a long journey that terminates with his capture in London. A speedy trial puts him away in the Big House for life, though he soon recants.

Too bad during the course of the show they never address what Ray thought and said and all of this. The experts they bring on to talk about him constantly psychoanalyze his thoughts and motivations without a reference to anything. They all talk of Ray as if they knew him personally, and of course, none of them did. They pretend to get in his head. And the point is, he did tell us about his thoughts and motives! He told his lawyer William Pepper. He told Dexter King, the slain civil rights leader’s son. He told his family. He told us under oath in sworn testimony to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970‘s. Ray even told us in his book he had published in 1997. I can see why they took this approach. In their narrative they have to have James Earl Ray as King’s killer. And since Ray spent the last 30 years of life denying he did, it complicates the story they want to tell.

The most amazing thing about this documentary is how little new information is brought into play. If it has the feeling of, we’ve been down this path before, we have. There will be no new revelations here. As bad as these types of shows get, mainly seen on The History Channel and the Discovery Channel, they never get this boring. Please, give us a tidbit of new information after 40 years. The Roads To Memphis seems more like a vehicle to help the authors featured hawk their books.

The Talking Heads
Overall, most of the commentators shown basically speak for James Earl Ray. The only quote that emerges directly from him is when he supposedly referred to MLK as “Martin Lucifer Coon.” Everything else is speculation as to his motives. This is probably the most shallow investigative work you’ll ever see in a documentary of this type. It is not as if Ray died shortly after the assassination as Oswald did after JFK’s death and we have to ponder about motives and what made him tick. Ray told us. But the producers of Roads to Memphis don’t want us to see that. Once again, our mainstream media become so Orwellian in the way it deals with information it presents to the public. It is not the sins of commission but more the sins of omission.

Numerous commentators appear and I found them to be the most surprising bunch of “experts” one can dig up. Associates of King are few and far between; understandable since so many have passed on. Andrew Young makes an appearance but no Jesse Jackson? No members of King’s family? Is that because they believe in conspiracy in their father’s murder? Dexter King believes Ray was telling the truth when he said he didn’t kill his father. No wonder they don’t want to talk to him.

Conversely, no members of Ray’s family were shown interviewed either to build on what this man’s character was really all about.

Disgraced CBS news anchor Dan Rather makes an appearance to make numerous comments on what James Earl Ray was thinking and feeling at the time. As if he could actually know. Rather, with his dramatic broadcaster voice and a look of a man ready to jump through a plate glass window at any given moment, adds a surreal context to the proceedings. I watched declaring this and that, wondering what Rather has to do with the King assassination. Just because he was alive and reporting on it at the time? He has apparently written nothing of value about it. If the producers thought they were adding gravitas to the show by including him, they blew it. Dan Rather with mind reading skills is loopy to say the least.

Gerald Posner, who wrote one of the most vapid books on the Kennedy assassination, Case Closed, also wrote a book on King, Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., hence his appearance. Naturally, he is a lone gunman proponent. Apparently Posner’s comments was filmed before he got himself kicked off the Daily Beast, a news web site for plagiarism. He is also cited for plagiarized material in "Miami Babylon," his latest book. We want to believe what this guy tells us?

New to the game is Hampton Sides whose recently published book, Hellhound On His Trail (the title idea lifted from Robert Johnson’s delta blues classic; how original) just happens to coincide with the broadcast of this show. Sides’ declares his book is a “narrative history.” You can also see this style defined as “creative non fiction.” It’s the New Truth, you know? The book is made up conversations and even thoughts (!) of the various historical characters, some of which cannot be verified, especially the thoughts of people from forty years ago. Curiously, he refers to Ray via his various aliases and not his given name. Sides in an interview speaks of himself as a historian, and if so, the job of historian has changed greatly with the times. I can’t imagine Will and Ariel Durrant doing this sort of far-out speculation and presenting it as the truth. As one reviewer on Amazon intoned, if this book were a film it would be called a docudrama. Indeed! Hampton Sides comes off as another attractive talking head, though a stuttering one. His search for the truth and justice boils down to money and fame. Expect him to be the “new darling” such as Gerald Posner was with his JFK book, when anything about Martin Luther King comes up in the future.

Conspiracy, the new leper of modern discourse, is mentioned about 5 to 10 seconds in the Roads to Memphis. The mythos of the Lone Gunman returns as the boogieman that can’t do anything right but shoot straight at famous people. Mr. Sides has this to say about the issue from his Amazon interview:

“The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, the Green Berets, President Johnson, the Memphis Police Department, the Memphis Fire Department, the Memphis Mayor’s Office, the Boy Scouts of America--everybody killed Martin Luther King! But as I got into it, it became clear that the evidence against James Earl Ray was overwhelming.”

The evidence is so overwhelming that the King family civil trial in 1999, which returned a jury verdict of conspiracy in the case, cannot even be mentioned one time! The reader will take note of the gentle mockery implied here by invoking the Boy Scouts. I don’t think Sides seriously looked into the matter. He can’t if he wants the mainstream media face-time. But note his most telling remark about theories: “They raise more questions than they address, they create more problems than they solve.”

Oh, then we should not go there, then! We like simple stories because they make us feel good! Really, it is not that conspiracy theories that create more problems than they solve; refer to the King family trial transcript and you’ll see the conspiracy angle is not that hard or too complicated to believe in at all. It certainly was not for the 12 people on the jury. Actually for people like Hampton Sides, conspiracy is an area repugnant to those that wish to bask in the limelight. Few wish to follow the trail of the assassins as it is a rough road to travel. (Just look at the two indictments Jim Garrison had to fight off.) No author will get a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, as Sides did, if conspiracy is brought up. Look at Jesse Ventura’s hugely popular book, American Conspiracies. A New York Times best seller that has yet to get a review in any mainstream press, including, ironically, the New York Times.

Incredibly, and despite the silence, the PBS web site does feature a link to the King family trial transcript. Here, a conspiracy is laid bare. Numerous books are are listed and those include conspiracy related books. Good for them for doing so. It’s just odd that they didn’t want to deal with these issues on TV. But it keeps in line with the old media’s aversion to all things conspiratorial.

The Railroaded Man
Imagine for a moment that you have been arrested and indicted for the murder of a world-famous, Noble Prize winning, civil rights leader. Your lawyer, in this case, Percy Foreman, in handling your case, contacts a local Public Defender to defend you, under orders to work out a plea deal with the Prosecutor. To make matters worse, Foreman sold the rights of Ray’s story to author William Bradford Huie who would publish, He Slew the Dreamer, a book largely framing Ray for the crime. Percy Foreman made off like bandit with this deal, never asking James Ray if he had even shot Dr. King.

Huie is an interesting character in his own right. A WWII vet, he became an author and magazine editor who wrote many novels that were made into movies. Besides writing the book on the King assassination making sure that Ray was the guilty man to the American and world public, in 1974 Huie offered Ray a sum of $25,000 to admit he murdered King. When it was asked what would a man in prison for life do with the money, Huie offered him a pardon. Ray turned down the offer. (As if Huie actually had the power to arrange a pardon in the first place!)

You won’t see a shred of this mentioned in the Roads To Memphis. (Nor on Wikipedia either, the Internet mouth piece for the status quo.) Whatever, it all adds up to a huge miscarriage of the tradition we have of the accused getting a fair trial. Perhaps that is just an American myth we tell ourselves so we can think of our system as being more fair than other countries. It certainly wasn’t fair to James Earl Ray.

In Parting
I truly believe Martin Luther King was a giant of American history and his death a great tragedy. One of many in the 1960s. I believe it can be proven that James Earl Ray was a seedy character, a career criminal, and may or may not have been a racist. The King family proved, at least in their minds, and I concur, that Martin Luther King was killed as a result of a conspiracy. For PBS to produce a documentary on this subject and completely ignore this fact shows the producers were not aiming for the whole truth, just enough to be taken seriously by a few. I can’t say for certain what their motives are but dealing with the controversial bits of the case in this manner is an act of manipulation. It is not new. The media has been at this since the days of the Kennedy assassination when they saw the public was not believing the official story. Just read my article, How CBS Screwed Orville Nix, and you’ll see what they have been up to since then.

Ultimately, James Earl Ray is not allowed to tell his side of the story. This makes the Roads To Memphis a shallow and empty documentary to explain what happened. It’s propaganda. The same stuff we saw for years on CBS now moved over to PBS at tax payer’s expense.

Pepper, William, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King; Posner, Gerald, Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King; Venture, Jesse, American Conspiracies; Ray, James Earl, Who Killed Martin Luther King Jr.?; ides, Hampton, Hellhound on his Trail; DiEugenio, James with Pease, Lisa (Editors), The Assassinations: Probe Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK, and Malcolm X.

Web Sites