Thursday, 07 November 2019 03:06

The Assassin Next Door Focuses On the Wrong Target

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Jeff Carter revisits Gerald Posner’s book on the MLK assassination, Killing the Dream, in light of a recent New Yorker Magazine article which rehashes many of Posner’s narratives and specious conclusions.

This past July, venerable The New Yorker Magazine, as part of an ongoing series captioned Personal History, published “The Assassin Next Door”, by Hector Tobar. The relatively short essay reflects a contemporary trend by using biography to negotiate the intersection of personal identity within larger cultural currents. Here, the author reflects on the individual trajectories of his Guatemalan immigrant parents and himself, born and raised in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, in a set contrast to the life and personal trajectory of the officially designated assassin of Martin Luther King, James Earl Ray. Ray, apparently, lived for a period of time in the same East Hollywood neighbourhood as Hector Tobar, a fact revealed by his reading Gerald Posner’s book on the MLK assassination Killing The Dream (1998), which he describes as an “excellent reconstruction of Ray’s life and King’s murder.”

Cued by the Posner book, Tobar understands Ray as holding “an abiding hatred of black people” and who murdered King “in the name of white supremacy.” His pathology assumes an essentialist nature—“his whiteness meant that he deserved better than what he had”—from which the author can free associate: “I felt Ray’s presence on the building’s front steps, beneath a stunted palm tree. I imagined his ghost lurking about, disgusted at the polyglot city around him, and raging at the futility of his act of murder.” The function of this essay, it seems, is a sort of riff on various levels of meaning imbued by racial identity in America. It is Tobar’s “personal history” in conjunction with Gerald Posner’s version of James Earl Ray.

James Earl Ray himself consistently denied holding a racist viewpoint. Those who met him during his thirty-year struggle to clear his name, including members of MLK’s immediate family, did not believe Ray to be a racist. The racial angle, such as it was initially applied, could be considered a conclusion arrived ahead of the evidence—a useful conclusion which promoted a motive for the assassination (other than a rumoured bounty), assigned to a man who otherwise lacked one. Posner also seems to start from this position, as he builds his portrait through uncorroborated statements of men who were Ray’s fellow prisoners, and over-emphasis on certain ambiguous details (such as presumed campaign work for George Wallace, discussed below).[1]

How is it possible, in the year 2019, that an author such as Gerald Posner—whose work has been variously criticized for plagiarism, non-existent sourcing, bias, and misrepresentation of the documented record—could be considered by anyone as an “excellent” resource for historical understanding?[2] Posner’s notorious Oswald-lone-nut book Case Closed (1992) had been roundly criticized for its factual errors and fake interviews and was described by academic David Wrone (who was interviewed by Posner) as “one of the stellar instances of irresponsible publishing on this subject." In both of his books on the 1960s political assassinations, Posner assumes the role of plucky investigator even as he presents a prosecutor’s brief, emphasizing the points which support his case and downplaying, if not ignoring, the evidence which doesn’t. Both books were timed to be released on the thirtieth anniversaries of their central event and both books became heavily promoted in the mainstream establishment media. In the case of Killing The Dream, as reporter Mike Golden put it, Posner’s legacy “is that his bogus narrative of what happened in the MLK case has become the traditional hack standard of what the (mainstream) media will allow to be considered what really happened in Memphis, April 4, 1968.”[3]

In the mainstream media, Posner’s “bogus narrative” received rave four-star reviews. Anthony Lewis, for example, writing in the New York Times Book Review, effused that Killing The Dream was “a model of investigation, meticulous in its discovery and presentation of evidence, unbiased in its exploration of every claim.”[4] In the Times itself, Richard Bernstein praised it as “the most comprehensive and definitive story of the King assassination”.[5] This trend line continues in most all the contemporary reviews and related content, which served as the only coverage most Americans would be exposed to. These reviews, particularly from the core establishment newspapers, would create a “seal of approval” of Posner’s scholarship, largely determined by reviewers who themselves knew little of the case beyond what appeared in the book itself. The “seal of approval” carries on through the years, presumably informing Tobar’s characterization of excellence two decades later.

A more savvy reader of Killing The Dream, understanding this is contested subject matter, would eventually pick up on Posner’s evasiveness despite his posture of certainty, particularly as applied to problematic witnesses and Ray’s contradictory behaviour. For a book praised for its biographical portrait of an assassin, the James Earl Ray presented is curiously meticulous and crafty when necessary, but lazy and drifting otherwise. Posner, in general, fails to apply honest reflection on Ray’s odd meandering journeys in 1967-68, preferring to first dismiss speculation and then speculate on what “likely” happened. A reader’s tolerance for such tactics depends on the extent the mainstream establishment’s endorsement of Posner’s investigative prowess holds sway. A sceptical attitude seems invited by his divergent descriptions of Ray as either settled in obscurity or a desperate fugitive, which serves to rationalize behaviour which never really ties together in his earnest account.

For example, Posner steps very carefully around the salient coincidence that three of Ray’s aliases, beginning as he arrived in Montreal on July 18, 1967, were actual persons living in close proximity on the outskirts of Toronto. He argues Ray must have randomly “stumbled across” the Eric Galt name and speculates the other two were found by perhaps consulting old birth notices and phone books. The account of Ray’s quick journey from Los Angeles to New Orleans and back in January 1968 presents a jumble of motivations from participants who all seem to possess reason to be less than forthright, which doesn’t prevent Posner from highlighting the least plausible scenario as it fits seamlessly with the “white supremacist” narrative (and which Tobar jumps on).[6]

Later on, Posner announces his intention to directly confront the fact that the only witness to place Ray near the rooming house bathroom at the time of MLK’s shooting was falling down drunk (or “less than sober” as he prefers), but he never actually does. Instead, he switches attention from Charlie Stephens’ alcoholism to Grace Waldron’s alcoholism and mental health issues and manages to make her the unreliable witness, even as the most important fact is it is Stephens’ inebriation that afternoon which calls his ID of Ray into question. That Posner must frame this entire section as responses to legal arguments made by Ray’s representatives over the years should alert any reader that his book is functioning as a prosecutorial argument rather than investigative objectivity.

In fact, Killing The Dream eventually becomes so focussed on answering issues raised by Ray’s then attorney William Pepper, who would later represent the King family during the 1999 civil trial, that serving as a public rebuke to Pepper appears one of the book’s operative functions. Contemporary reviewers evidently picked up on this. The Washington Post Book-World noted that “members of King's family are among the many who doubt that Ray had anything to do with it…Posner has taken on the task of liberating everyone from surmises.” The Tampa Tribune used its review to editorialize: “The King family should read Killing the Dream instead of asking the Justice Department to open a new investigation into the assassination.” If the wide publicity afforded Posner’s book had the effect of pre-conditioning the public to pay less attention to the King family’s efforts, that may have been its intention all along. The federal Department of Justice did not participate in the civil trial, and rather conducted its own review which actually referred often to Posner’s work, epitomizing the effort to shut the door on inquiry and understanding.

Ironically or not, in his New Yorker piece Tobar relates a facet of his own personal history while, following Posner, withholding the same privilege to the late James Earl Ray, other than one filtered through presumed malignancies such as racial bigotry and “supremacy”. To be sure, Ray, on his own admission, would prove to be an unreliable narrator, such that it is difficult to really know his own motivation or reasons for anything, but the racist angle seems particularly contrived and void of hard corroborating fact. Of course, imbuing Ray with the stigma of white supremacy as determinedly as Posner does allows the negative trait to be embodied solely with the alleged assassin, such that the messier reality can be neatly sidestepped: federal and local police forces of the time were racially biased as well. If Ray’s supposed date with destiny was motivated by his innate prejudice, as Posner seems to argue, then why does the same motivation not hold for provably biased figures in the FBI or Memphis police? That Tobar does not ask that question is not entirely his fault, as it takes a fair amount of inquiry from different sources to understand it is a question worth asking in the first place. Subtle conditioning favouring establishment voices and narratives often, consciously or not, promotes deferral to whatever history the New York Times says is worth four stars. As Douglas Valentine put it : “Was institutionalized, government-sanctioned racism one of the reasons Dr. King was assassinated? You bet it was.”[7] That it is these institutionalized forces which are more in alignment with, for instance, the pressures which caused Tobar’s parents to flee Guatemala in the first place than an allegedly racist lone-nut career criminal ever could be—well, there’s a personal history also worth mulling over.

It’s worth noting that, along with The New Yorker’s casual promotion of one side of a disputed narrative, this past summer witnessed a renewed wave of calls for various levels of censorship and fact-vetting directed at social media platforms, culminating recently in Twitter’s announcement it would not accept political advertising during the US 2020 political campaign. Two years previously, Google had announced a change in its search algorithms to promote “authoritative sources” over “alternative viewpoints.” Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerburg, not a free-speech firebrand, was shouted down in the mainstream media after publicly declaring “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or news in a democracy.” This has sparked a debate about money, politics, and free speech which has itself been largely detached from the factual realities of the intersection between the three in the real world. A deliberate focus and over-emphasis on “crazy” marginal (and marginalized) points of view has had the effect of implicitly endorsing the authority of the establishment, which is responsible for the overwhelming majority of political advertising. The point is, ultimately, not to reduce the level of spending on information management, but to reduce voices and viewpoints through vetting against “fake news” or unauthorized expression. The vetting of Gerald Posner two decades ago should caution against mis-attributed faith in establishment institutions to be somehow trustworthy.

A groundswell of support for critical thinking and media literacy programs in the education system seems called for. Instead, a fear has been cultivated, most often by college-educated liberals, of “lies” and “fake news” lurking unseen in the water, producing an “incredibly dangerous effect on our elections and our lives and our children’s lives.”[8] Average citizens, it is declared, are not able to “discern the veracity of every political ad” and should therefore be protected from fake news in favour of the “diplomats, intelligence officers and civil servants” which “provide the independent research and facts” which are “legitimate”.[9] The New Yorker itself joined the fray, knocking Facebook for creating “the world’s biggest microphone” only to allow access for “liars, authoritarians, professional propagandists, or anyone else who can afford to pay market rate.” It is then noted approvingly that Facebook recently announced its own “official news tab…where users can find high-quality news from trusted sources”, (which, it turns out, includes The New Yorker).[10] One might get the impression that the lack of a level playing field or abandonment of professional journalistic practice is not the real concern of these self-appointed gatekeepers, it is the loss of control over the creation and reinforcement of official narratives which must be restored.

Similarly, the term “conspiracy theory” has recently returned to some prominence, serving as an evil twin of sorts to the scourge of “fake news.” The week before “The Assassin Next Door” appeared in the New Yorker, NBC’s website featured a generalized thesis attacking “conspiracy theorists” written by Lynn Stuart Parramore, PHD,[11] which conflated the Moon landing, lizard people, and the assassinations of the 1960s while faithfully parroting—knowingly or not—a number of the directives offered by the infamous 1967 CIA memorandum on the topic.[12] Attempting to redefine the alleged “problem” as based in psychological deficiencies and narcissistic traits, Parramore rather encourages the normalization of the “paranoid style” she warns about, as the utterance of “conspiracy theory” ( or non-vetted information) becomes associated with a form of mental illness, just as the latest federal judicial theories encourage active “disruption” of “potential threats” based in part on “symptoms of mental illness.”[13] Through their own blinkered logics, the liberal intelligentsia in America are setting the foundation stones for exactly the country they claim they are trying to prevent. Critical thinking skills and clear-minded analysis remain the best tools moving forward.


[1]On Posner’s investigative techniques see Mike Vinson “Nailed To The Cross: Gerald Posner on the King Case” Probe Magazine Vol. 6 No. 3

[2]Jim DiEugenio “He’s Baaack! The Return of Gerald Posner”

[3]Mike Golden “Assassination By Omission: Another Look At Serial Plagiarist Gerald Posner” Exiled Online Sept 30, 2010

[4]Anthony Lewis “Beyond A Shadow of a Doubt” New York Times Book Review April 26, 1998

[5]Richard Bernstein “‘Killing The Dream’: Ray Was King’s Lone Assassin” New York Times April 22, 1998

[6]Tobar writes, following Posner’s lead: “In December, 1967, Ray visited the North Hollywood Presidential-campaign office of George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, who had become a folk hero among segregationists… Ray had gathered signatures to help get Wallace on the California ballot.” Rather than “gathering signatures”, Ray claimed he stopped at the Wallace office on the request of his passengers, just ahead of the New Orleans trip. One of these passengers claimed to the FBI that Ray appeared very familiar with the office, but subsequent investigation cast doubt on this. It was suggested that Ray offered to cover the expenses to New Orleans in return for his acquaintances registering with Wallace, but that is possibly if not likely a weak rationale for behaviour and motivations the participants prefer to be less than honest about. There is no other instance of overt political activity on behalf of Ray. Posner acknowledges the overall sketchy milieu of this incident.

[7]Douglas Valentine “Deconstructing Kowalski” Probe Magazine Vol. 7 No. 6.

[8]Aaron Sorkin “An Open Letter To Mark Zuckerburg” New York Times October 29, 2019

[9]Thomas Friedman “Trump, Zuckerburg, and Pals Are Breaking America” New York Times October 29 2019 Note that The New York Times had been at the forefront of promoting two of the most consequential instances of “fake news” in this young century—Iraq WMD and Russiagate.

[10]Andrew Marantz “Facebook and the Free Speech Excuse” The New Yorker October 31, 2019 Note that The New Yorker, not shy to publish reflexive support for one side of contested official narratives as discussed above, also bought into the empty Mueller / Russia collusion narrative with some enthusiasm.

[11]Lynn Stuart Parramore “From Trump to Alec Baldwin, Conspiracy Theories, Narcissism, and Celebrity Culture Go Hand In Hand”

[12]thelastheretik “CIA Memo 1967: CIA Coined & Weaponized The Label ‘Conspiracy Theory’”

[13]Whitney Webb. “AG William Barr Formally Announces Orwellian Pre-Crime Program” Mint Press News, October 25, 2019

Last modified on Friday, 08 November 2019 13:10
Jeff Carter

Jeff Carter is a filmmaker and audio technician based in Vancouver, Canada. Along with Len Osanic, he produced the web series 50 Reasons for 50 Years in 2013.

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