Martin Luther King’s murder no mystery to Louis Stokes
Plain Dealer Reporter
Louis Stokes knew Martin Luther King Jr. as a friend and confidant before he made it his duty to find out who killed him.
King organized voter registration drives that helped Stokes’ younger brother, Carl, become the first black mayor of a major American city in November 1967. Then he stood beside Louis Stokes at campaign headquarters in Cleveland, discussing the meaning of the moment, as volunteers celebrated in the street.
Less than a decade later, Congressman Louis Stokes led the inquiry into King’s murder as chairman of the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
His love and admiration for the man he still calls Martin stoked his emotions but did not cloud his judgment, Stokes insists. At the 40th anniversary of King’s death, he remains convinced that his committee got it right.
About 6 p.m. April 4, 1968, King was shot with a high-powered rifle as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. James Earl Ray alone pulled the trigger, maybe for money. The government and the police had nothing to do with it.
Those conclusion have inspired decades of second-guessing, grand conspiracies and speculative books and movies.
Even in Cleveland, where Stokes’ reputation is sterling, doubts linger.
“I never have thought that they got to the bottom of it,” said Stanley Tolliver, a Cleveland lawyer who represented King during his civil rights work in Cleveland in the late 1960s.
Tolliver said he thinks that Ray, an escaped convict, pleaded guilty to a crime someone else masterminded.
“I was never satisfied that he was the one who did it. I don’t think he was smart enough,” Tolliver said. “I think somebody put him up to it and he copped to it to avoid the death penalty.”
Stokes is not surprised to hear Tolliver’s theory. He has heard hundreds. During a 29-year career in Congress, his expertise in leading sensitive investigations led to a familiarity with conspiracy theories.
“People are fascinated by assassinations,” said Stokes, who practices law between Cleveland and Washington, D.C., with Squire Sanders & Dempsey. “Just look at the Lincoln assassination. People are still speculating, writing books about it.”
Stokes said he stands by his committee’s conclusions, in part, because they have stood the test of time.
“What I look at now is that no one has been able to refute our findings,” he said. “Nobody — with all the investigations going on all over the country — nobody has been able to refute our findings.”
His committee’s report was less than complete, he concedes. But then, it faced unusual challenges.
King’s murder was eight years old and President John F. Kennedy had been dead 13 years when a task force was assembled to investigate both assassinations. The rumors of government complicity and cover-ups had never ceased. The nation needed to hear the truth.
Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill turned to Stokes.
“What we encountered was evidence that had been destroyed, important witnesses who were deceased,” Stokes said.
Still, he was determined to run down every rumor and accusation, he said. His committee dismissed most allegations and confirmed a few.
It concluded that Ray was likely part of a conspiracy, a plot to kill King. Ray was aware of a bounty offered by a St. Louis lawyer and he had stalked King across the country, Stokes said. Ray needed help to escape to Mexico and to England, where he was captured.
“We think his brothers, who were also notorious criminals, helped finance his trips,” Stokes said.
But the committee knocked down the most explosive allegations. Law enforcement authorities were not involved in King’s death, it concluded, and there was no government cover-up.
Over the years, many have questioned Ray’s role as assassin, including members of the King family, who supported Ray’s call for a new trial before he died in prison in 1998.
Skepticism crescendoed in 1992 after the release of “JFK,” Oliver Stone’s movie about the assassination of President Kennedy.
“That was the weirdest, wildest, most senseless movie I’ve ever seen,” Stokes said. He still marvels at its premise: “Our government killed our president and then we had a congressional committee cover it up.”
The closing credits listed Stokes’ Washington address and he was deluged with accusatory letters and phone calls. Soon after, Stokes took action to begin to publicize evidence collected for the Kennedy investigation.
Records from the King investigation remain sealed and likely will be for another 20 years, following Stokes’ instructions in 1978.
That secrecy bothers John Judge, a co-founder of the Washington-based Coalition on Political Assassinations.
“We don’t think the committee did everything wrong,” Judge said. “We don’t think they went far enough. We don’t think they were exhaustive.”
Judge’s group argues the sealed records could shed new light on an unsolved crime.
Stokes said the release of interview transcripts and other papers could embarrass and malign innocent people.
Confident that he got his man, Stokes finds himself thinking instead about who was lost.
When he first heard over the radio that King had been shot, he sat in his car and cried.
“There was a greatness about him that you don’t feel with ordinary people,” Stokes said. “It’s impossible to measure what our nation lost. He changed us all.”
King was, he noted, 39 years old.
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