A lesson in history

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Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement he stood for was remembered and commemorated across the country over a long weekend that extended into Monday with programs and speakers. A King Day at the Dome rally was held at the State House in Columbia and closer to home a celebration was held at the Civic Center of Anderson. Williamston held their first MLK Breakfast event Saturday.

The MLK holiday is a federal holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around King’s birthday, January 15. The floating holiday is similar to holidays set under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

The campaign for a federal holiday in King’s honor began soon after his assassination in 1968. Republican President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was first observed three years later. Some states resisted observing the holiday as such, giving it alternative names or combining it with other holidays. It was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.

While almost everyone associates Dr. King with the Civil Rights struggle, not everyone may be familiar with the reason for the holiday and the events surrounding his death.

According to the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American clergyman, activist, and prominent leader of the African-American civil rights movement and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who became known for his advancement of civil rights by using civil disobedience.

He was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on Thursday April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:05pm that evening.

James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary, was arrested on June 8, 1968 in London at Heathrow Airport, extradited to the United States, and charged with the crime. On March 10, 1969, Ray entered a plea of guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. Ray later made many attempts to withdraw his guilty plea and be tried by a jury, but was unsuccessful; he died in prison on April 23, 1998, at the age of 70.

The King family and others believed that the assassination was carried out by a conspiracy involving the US government, as alleged by Loyd Jowers in 1993, and that James Earl Ray was a scapegoat. In 1999 the King family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Jowers for the sum of $100.

During the trial both the family and Jowers cooperated in presenting evidence alleging a government conspiracy, while the government agencies accused could not defend themselves because they were not named as defendants. Based on the evidence presented to the jury, it was ruled that Loyd Jowers and others were part of a conspiracy to kill King.

No government agency or individual was named in that civil suit so no defense or evidence from the state was considered. The United States Department of Justice later found Jowers’ claims to not be credible.

The jury of six blacks and six whites, found that King had been the victim of assassination by a conspiracy involving the Memphis police as well as federal agencies. This effectively defaulted civil verdict against Jowers only is nonetheless claimed by many to affirm Ray’s criminal innocence, which the King family has always maintained. The family requested a mere $100 in restitution to show that they were not pursuing the case for financial gain.

In 2000, the Department of Justice completed the investigation about Jowers’ claims but did not find evidence to support the allegations about conspiracy. The investigation report recommends no further investigation unless some new reliable facts are presented.

A sister of Jowers also admitted that he had fabricated the story so he could make $300,000 from selling the story, and she in turn corroborated his story in order to get some money to pay her income tax.

King biographer David Garrow disagrees with claims that the government killed King. There are other theories.