Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Awful Grace of God, Religious Terrorism, White Supremacy and the Unsolved Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock

Reviewed by Martin Hay

In 1979 the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) released its report stating that there was a “likelihood of conspiracy” in the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Predictably, and in spite of the evidence, the HSCA found that James Earl Ray was the assassin and suggested that he was responding to an alleged “bounty” offered by a few right-wing southern extremists. For all intents and purposes, Stuart Wexler’s and Larry Hancock’s "The Awful Grace of God" is an updated and even more speculative version of this scenario. That there does not appear to be a shred of credible evidence to support any of it will hopefully be made apparent in the course of this review. The authors distinguish their work from that of the HSCA by not committing themselves 100% to Ray as the shooter. But this feels like little more than a token gesture intended to appease those of us who have actually studied the crime scene evidence. If the authors ever seriously considered anyone else in that role, or what other role Ray might have played, then I missed it.

From the moment Hancock and Wexler introduce the reader to Ray, it is crystal where they are headed. When asked by "The Daily Beast" whether or not Ray fired the fatal shot, Wexler replied, “He probably did, but the physical evidence is a morass we didn't really want to get into.” To most serious observers, this is a rather unusual viewpoint in the investigation of a murder case. The crime scene evidence is the most important evidence there is and should be the first port of call for anyone writing a book on this subject. This is especially so given that it all but proves Ray's innocence.

As I see it, one of the biggest flaws of "The Awful Grace of God" is its reliance on dubious, discredited, and biased sources. So before we get into the review proper, I believe it would be instructive to begin by briefly exploring a few of those sources the authors most frequently cite and most heavily rely upon.

William Bradford Huie
In 1960, author William Bradford Huie attempted to sue NBC over its program, "The American". He claimed it was based on his story, "The Hero of Iwo-Jima". Since Huie had claimed in his book that the story was true, the motion was denied, since historical facts not being subject to copyright laws. But Huie demonstrated for the court that elements he had claimed in his book as true were, in fact, “the product of my imagination.” (Mark Lane & Dick Gregory, "Murder In Memphis", pgs. 282-283) Despite his self-proven status as a self-admitted fabricator, Huie is one of the most frequently cited sources in "The Awful Grace of God". The authors write that Huie was “the first reporter to deal directly with Ray” (Wexler and Hancock, p. 151). But this is misleading. Simply because the two men never even met. The pair communicated through Ray's first attorney, Arthur Hanes. Sometimes Hanes would pass Huie notes written by Ray; other times he would simply forward verbal messages (in court this is known as hearsay). But Ray quickly became upset with Huie. Because he thought that he revealed too much of Ray's defense in an article for "Look" magazine, and suspected that he was passing information on to the FBI. From then on Ray began passing on obvious lies to Huie and their “relationship” deteriorated. Huie, who had begun writing about a conspiracy to kill King, now turned 180 degrees and proclaimed that Ray did it all by himself. And, as he had done with "The Hero of Iwo-Jima", Huie began adding details from his own imagination.

For example in his book about the King case, "He Slew the Dreamer", Huie claimed that a Canadian woman Ray had spent time with in the summer of 1967 had told him of an occasion when Ray had expressed his true feelings for blacks. According to Huie, Ray had remarked over dinner that “You got to live near niggers to know 'em” and that all people who “know niggers” hate them. But, as the HSCA found out, when the woman was interviewed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police she swore that Ray had never indicated any hatred of blacks at all. (HSCA Report, p. 328) Huie had simply invented the damaging quotations.

Perhaps the most telling incident concerning Huie's credibility occurred at the time the ill-fated congressional investigation was getting under way. As one of Ray's former lawyers, Jack Kershaw, swore at the 1999 King V. Jowers civil trial (in which the jury found “governmental agencies” partly responsible for the assassination), Huie phoned him and offered Ray a large sum of money to confess and explain “how he killed by himself—he and he alone killed—shot and killed Martin Luther King...And I immediately asked him, what good is the money going to do this man? He's in the penitentiary. And Mr. Huie said, well, we'll get him a pardon immediately...he was very confident. I suggested he arrange the pardon before the story, but he didn't agree to that.” ("The 13th Juror: The Official Transcript of the Martin Luther King Conspiracy Trial", pgs. 393-394) Kershaw passed the offer on to Ray and Ray turned it down flat. As Ray noted in his book, when he mentioned the “offer” to his brother Jerry and attorney Mark Lane, Lane suggested Jerry should phone Huie “and ask him to be more specific—taping the conversation for safety's sake.” In two recorded conversations, “Huie said if I would, in effect, confess to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., he'd come up with $220,000 for me, plus parole, which Huie claimed he could 'arrange' with Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton...As for the source of the $220,000, Huie wouldn't say. He knew better than to name his paymasters.” (James Earl Ray, "Who Killed Martin Luther King?", p. 201)

George McMillan
The name George McMillan will no doubt be familiar to students of the Kennedy assassination as the husband of CIA “witting collaborator” Priscilla Johnson McMillan. Priscilla, who had applied to work for the Agency but apparently became one of its media assets instead, authored Marina Oswald's “autobiography” "Marina & Lee"—a book Marina herself would characterize as “full of lies.” But it's not George's obvious ties to the intelligence community that discredit his book, "The Making of an Assassin", so much as it is his self-admitted willingness to knowingly publish falsehoods.

Jerry Ray, James' brother, was a major source for McMillan and, as McMillan knew full well, he made up just about everything he told him for money. As Harold Weisberg wrote, “All the Rays to whom McMillan spoke and whom he quoted denounced the book as full of lies (no small quantity of which were made up by Jerry Ray to fleece McMillan).” (Weisberg, "Whoring with History", unpublished manuscript, chapter 14) When he had gotten all the money he thought he was going to get from him, Jerry wrote to McMillan's publisher Little, Brown, and warned them “There isn't a word of truth in his whole book.”(ibid) On one occasion, when McMillan was desperately seeking a picture of the Ray family, Jerry procured some faded old photographs from an antique shop for a dollar and sold them to McMillan for $2,500. (Mark Lane & Dick Gregory, "Murder in Memphis", p. 240) “Of course he lied to me,” McMillan admitted, ( p. 234). But he went ahead and included the false information in his book anyway. And, according to Jerry Ray, he made up a few quotations of his own.

To typify McMillan, when Mark Lane phoned him and asked him if he had any recordings of his interviews with Jerry, or if he denied making up quotations, McMillan refused to answer (Lane and Gregory, pgs. 236-237)

Gerold Frank
On March 11, 1969, FBI deputy director Cartha DeLoach wrote the following in a memo to associate director Clyde Tolson: “Now that Ray has been convicted and is serving a 99-year sentence, I would like to suggest that the Director allow us to choose a friendly, capable author, or the "Reader's Digest", and proceed with a book based on this case.” The following day, as an addendum to this memo, DeLoach recommended “ Gerold Frank...Frank is already working on a book on the Ray case and has asked the Bureau's cooperation on a number of occasions. We have nothing derogatory on him in our files, and our relationship with him is excellent.” Needless to say, the book that resulted from this “excellent” relationship, "An American Death", is cut from precisely the same cloth as Huie's and McMillan's, and Frank proves more than capable of spinning a tale or two.

Frank writes of an alleged incident from James Earl Ray's time in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, when Ray was drinking at a brothel with a prostitute calling herself “Irma La Deuce.” A group of sailors were drinking at a nearby table and one of the four black members of the party was laughing so noisily that Ray became incensed, telling La Deuce—also known as Irma Morales—that he hated blacks. Ray went over to the table, insulted the man, and went outside to his car. When he came back in, he stopped to insult the black sailor some more before going back to his table. He called Morales' attention to the fact that he now had a pistol in his pocket and that he wanted to kill the blacks. When the party left, Ray wanted to go after them but abandoned the idea after Morales mentioned it was almost time for the local police's 10 pm visit. (Frank, pgs. 304-305) When the HSCA tracked down Morales they found that Frank's version of events was a little out-of-line with the truth. What had actually occurred was that one of the black sailors had drunkenly stumbled as he walked past them and touched Morales in an effort to break his fall. The drunken Ray overreacted and become angry out of jealousy and had “never mentioned his feelings about blacks” to Morales. (HSCA report, p. 329) It might have been a pack of lies but I'm sure the FBI much preferred Frank's distorted version of events.

Wexler and Hancock must be aware of Frank's credibility problems. I was disappointed to find that they do, in fact, admit that documents show he was the author chosen to write the book the FBI wanted written, but they frequently used him as a source anyway. But yet a genuine authority on the subject like Harold Weisberg is completely ignored by the authors. This preference for sources that support the official story, which also includes Gerald Posner and Jim Bishop, has a reflective effect on the credibility of their own book.


The main thesis of "The Awful Grace of God" is that the forces behind the murder of Dr. King were members of a wide-ranging, white supremacist/terrorist network, hell-bent on sparking off a race war. This network included members or affiliates of groups like the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the National State's Rights Party. The first seven chapters of the book are dedicated to identifying the most violent, outspoken, and influential members of this alleged network and detailing the numerous attempts they allegedly made, or planned to make, on Dr. King's life. Including attempted bombings and a planned sniper attack in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. The authors contend that these militant racists began reaching outside of their own groups and offering bounties of up to $100,000 to anyone who could get the job done. Much of the information provided is genuinely fascinating and many readers will likely agree that Wexler and Hancock have identified a number of possible suspects. But suspicion is not enough. For this to have relevance to the actual assassination, Wexler and Hancock need to prove that James Earl Ray had ties to one or more of these far-right organizations. Or that he heard about one of the alleged bounties and planned to collect it. Unfortunately, they cannot even come close to doing so.

The HSCA rejected racism as Ray's motivation for supposedly killing King and so too do Wexler and Hancock. But the authors understand full well that if he had held racist views and had racist contacts he would have been more likely to have been in the company of those discussing the alleged bounties on King. So they write that although Ray “was not fundamentally driven by racism” he nevertheless “wanted no part of blacks” and “opposed integration and the entire civil rights movement.” (Wexler and Hancock, p. 160) In support of this claim, the authors, like George McMillan and Gerald Posner before them, cite the word of Ray's “fellow inmates” at Missouri State Penitentiary. As I see it, this represents an obvious double-standard on the part of the authors since they use Ray's background as a petty crook to undermine his credibility and yet are happy to accept the self-serving word of his fellow convicts, many of whom were paid informants or were seeking relief from lengthy sentences. Can there be any less trustworthy sources? In truth, there is no credible evidence that Ray was a racist or “wanted no part of blacks”. And as far as this reviewer is aware no one has ever come forward claiming they were racially abused by Ray. As William Pepper reported, “He evinced no hostility towards blacks whatsoever and his employers at the Indian Trails restaurant in Illinois had said he got along very well with his fellow workers, most of whom were minorities. They were sorry to see him go.” (Pepper, "Orders to Kill", p. 186)

In their attempt to establish Ray's racist tendencies and associations, Wexler and Hancock try to create the impression that he was politically active on behalf of Alabama governor George Wallace, a staunch segregationist. Writing that he “recruited associates to register to vote and support the Wallace campaign” in California. (Wexler and Hancock, p. 160) In truth, Ray made only a single known trip to Wallace's campaign office, so that three associates could register. But Ray himself never did under any of his aliases. And as Harold Weisberg discovered, no one associated with Wallace's California campaign knew or associated with Ray and “a thorough check of their files showed no sign of any of the names associated with” him. (Weisberg, "Frame Up", p. 360) Ray himself commented on the absurdity of claims that he was a political activist for Wallace: “I was a fugitive, hiding out. I wasn't crazy enough to become active in a political campaign.” (Lane & Gregory, p. 249) The fact is, despite an abundance of speculation, multiple “may haves”, “could haves” and “most likelys”, the authors never come any closer than this to placing Ray in the company of the type of extreme-right individuals they contend masterminded the assassination.

Wexler and Hancock believe that the Missouri State Penitentiary is one place in which Ray could have learned of a bounty being offered on Dr. King. They write matter-of-factly that the HSCA “seriously investigated one lead regarding a bounty offer that did reach Ray while in prison” (Wexler and Hancock, p. 163). But in using the word “did” the authors are apparently much more certain than the committee ever was. In fact, the HSCA only claimed to have found a “likelihood that word of a standing offer on Dr. King's life reached James Earl Ray prior to the assassination”. They then admitted that due to a “failure in the evidence” it “could not make a more definite statement.” (HSCA Report, p. 373) And even the HSCA's words were more certain than they had any right to be. Not only did the committee uncover no evidence that the alleged bounty reached Ray, it heard compelling testimony that called its very existence into question.

The HSCA's story of a bounty offer began with a March 19, 1974, report from an FBI informant concerning a conversation he had with a St. Louis criminal named Russell Byers:
"(Portion redacted) Beyers [sic] talked freely about himself and his business, and they later went to (portion redacted) where Beyers told a story about visiting a lawyer in St. Louis County, now deceased, not further identified, who had offered to give him a contract to kill Martin Luther King. He said that also present was a short, stocky man, who walked with a limp. (Later, with regard to the latter individual, Beyers commented that this man was actually the individual who made the payoff of James Earl Ray after the killing.) Beyers said he had declined to accept this contract, he did remark that this lawyer had confederate flags and other items about the house that might indicate that he was 'a real rebel'. Beyers also commented that he had been offered either $10,000 or $20,000 to kill King."
For whatever reason, despite the reference to a fictitious “payoff” to Ray, the committee took this report seriously and contacted Byers only to find that Byers denied the offer ever took place. After talking to his lawyer, Byers decided he would “cooperate”, but only under subpoena and with a grant of immunity which the committee gladly delivered. Now, probably hoping he was safe from prosecution for perjury, Byers named the two men at the alleged meeting as former stockbroker John Kauffmann and lawyer John Sutherland—both conveniently deceased by the time he was questioned by the HSCA. Presumably realizing that $10,000 or $20,000 was a fairly paltry sum, Byers also upped the amount he said he had been offered to $50,000. (HSCA Report, p. 360)

In order to establish whether or not the alleged Sutherland-Kauffman offer ever reached Ray, the HSCA examined “four possible connectives” none of which panned out. (pgs. 366-369) Thus the committee was forced to admit that “Direct evidence that would connect the conspiracy in St. Louis to assassination was not obtained.” (p. 370) Unperturbed, Wexler and Hancock claim there is “independent corroboration from another inmate named Donald Mitchell for Ray's knowledge of the offer.” (Wexler and Hancock, p. 164) Indeed, on September 30, 1968, Mitchell did tell the FBI that some “friends in St. Louis” had “fixed it with someone in Philadelphia” for Ray to kill King and he offered to split the $50,000 he was to be paid with Mitchell if he would act as a decoy. But Mitchell was not done. He also claimed that after picking up the $50,000 for killing Dr. King, they would be picking up another payment for killing “one of those stinking Kennedy's.” (13 HSCA 248) Not surprisingly, the HSCA took Mitchell's claims with a grain of salt and his name does not appear in its report.

The HSCA was obviously unable to question Kauffman or Sutherland to confirm Byers' story and was unable to identify the “secret southern organization” supposedly financing the job. In fact, it found no substantiation for the existence of the supposed bounty beyond Byers' dubious word. On July 26, 1978, "The New York Times" reported of an interview with Kauffman's widow in which she told them “it was 'absolutely impossible' that her husband could have been involved in such a matter...and she believed that Mr. Byers had fabricated the information about her husband to 'help himself out of the art case.'” (Byers had been implicated as the buyer of stolen goods following the theft of a well-known bronze sculpture, but prosecutors later dropped the charges.) But the most damning information concerning Byers’ motivation for concocting the story came from a former lawyer, Judge Murray L. Randall, who had previously represented him in a civil case.
Byers told the HSCA that he had spoken of the alleged bounty with two lawyers, Randall and Lawrence Weenick. When contacted, Randall confirmed that Byers had indeed given him the story sometime “near the end of my law practice. I terminated my law practice November 4, 1974.” (7 HSCA 208) This, of course, would have been just after Randall gave the story to an FBI informant. As Randall explained, before the bounty conversation, sometime in 1973, Byers had spoken to Randall about a man named Richard O'Hara who was charged as an accessory to a jewel theft. Because the charge was “nolle prossed”, and because Byers was questioned by the FBI about something only O'Hara knew, Byers asked Randall “is Richard O'Hara the informant in this case”? Randall said he didn't know. After Byers gave his executive session testimony to the committee, Randall was contacted by Carter Stith, author of the aforementioned "New York Times" piece. Stith asked him if he had been the informant who gave the bounty story to the Bureau. Disturbed by this, Randall met with Byers and asked him “if he could tell from the report who the informant was and he said yes...He told me it was Richard O'Hara, said he could tell from the context.” (Ibid, p. 217) And yet, when Byers was asked by the committee if anyone else knew about the alleged bounty, he did not name O'Hara. As Randall concluded, and is most likely the case, Byers had concocted the entire story to smoke O'Hara out. Although the HSCA downplayed the significance of Randall's testimony, it uncovered nothing that invalidated his conclusion and, all things considered, it makes perfect sense. This would explain why the FBI did not act on the report in 1974 and why it made no move to question Byers: the Bureau knew what his game was and was therefore protecting its informant. It made no move to investigate the story because there was no need; Byers' bounty was a fabrication. It should be obvious then that Wexler and Hancock's assertion that the offer “did reach Ray while in prison” is simply not supportable.
The authors make a sizeable blunder when they write that after Ray's escape from Missouri State Penitentiary, and before he left for Canada in July of 1967, Ray “very likely heard more gossip about” the King bounty “at his brother's Grapevine Tavern in Saint Louis.” (Wexler and Hancock, p. 249) Despite their claim, this is not “very likely” at all. In fact, it is downright impossible for Ray to have heard any gossip of any kind in his brother's tavern at that time. It is true that after he quit his job at the Indian Trails restaurant in Chicago on June 25, Ray did spend a few short weeks in the St. Louis area but he could not have spent any of that time at the Grapevine Tavern. Had Wexler and Hancock been a little more careful in their research, instead of clutching at straws to substantiate their theory, they might have discovered that Carol Pepper, Ray's sister, did not even take out a lease on the property until October 1, 1967. And that the bar did not officially open until January 1, 1968! (See FBI MURKIN Central Headquarters File, Section 34, pgs. 290-293 and 8 HSCA 537)
Not only does the book fail to establish that Ray was ever in a position to hear about a genuine bounty being offered for the murder of Dr. King, it also struggles to convincingly explain why he would be interested in taking up such an offer if he had. After all, Ray had no history of violent crime—the only person ever hurt during Ray's petty robberies was Ray himself—and he was certainly no gun-for-hire. What then would possess an escaped convict, whose only desire was to get out of the country and settle somewhere safe from extradition, to become involved in a crime of such magnitude? According to Wexler and Hancock, it was all about the cash. They write that if nothing else, “the individuals who knew him best were in agreement on what had driven James Earl Ray throughout his life: money.” (Wexler and Hancock, p. 147) But if this were the case, then why did Ray turn down the aforementioned offer from William Bradford Huie of $220,000 and a pardon, when he all he had to do was admit to committing a crime for which he had already been convicted? The authors don’t reveal that Huie's offer took place. Therefore, they don't have to answer that question.

Read the rest of this review here:


  1. Martin,
    Your analysis of the book is superb. As a result Peter Dale Scott's assessment that their book is the best yet on the case is incorrect.
    IMO, either Weisberg's Frame Up or his Whoring with History are unsurpassed.
    I really like how you document that there is no forensic, or really any other evidence supporting the assertion that a shot was fired from the bathroom. It's just a wish.
    One thing about Ray's alibi: Weisberg said, in his 1976 UW-Stevens Point talk, that the way Ray described the police road block--as he was returning to the rooming house--is just like how prosecutor Phil Canale described it to a group in Memphis, only Ray had never heard this. The only way he could know this is if he actually had been approaching the scene of the murder as he said he was.
    Also, during the 1974 evidentiary hearing, Francisco admitted that you could not exclude a shot from the bushs, based on the wound to Dr. King.
    One cannot adequately address this case if the 1974 evidentiary hearing is ignored. You do not commit this error. The authors of Awful Grace of God do.
    Further you weave together the available documentary evidence into a persuasive case that Ray had nothing to do with the crime, other than being a patsy.
    Well done!

    1. Thank you very much neaguy,
      I tried as far as possible to stick to the evidence and judging from your comments it seems that came across ok. To be clear, I certainly don't think we can rule out the NSRP or the White Knights as suspects, but there is just no evidence to support the idea that these guys put out a bounty and JE Ray picked it up. It seems to me that Wexler and Hancock would have been better off arguing that "Raoul" was indeed real, that he was a contact of these far right groups, and that he set Ray up. Though obviously this scenario may not account for the security issues I spoke about.

  2. Martin,
    You mention Ed Redditt in your review only once referring to W and H's discussion of the removal of King's security.
    Do you think Redditt was "security" for King or something else, like just a spy? Weisberg referred to him as the "Black Judas" because many blacks were angry about his role with the police.
    Any thoughts?

  3. neaguy,
    As I recall, Redditt was just a police spy and had nothing to do with King's security. He was assigned to watch Dr. King and report on all his activities whilst he was in Memphis. He was part of Lt. Arkin's inteligence squad which kept a close watch on groups like the Invaders and the sanitaion workers and what not which is why he was considered a traitor by other blacks. His removal from the fire station had nothing to do with the assassination IMHO