Target: Martin Luther King

A New Look at America's Most Unresolved Assassination

Remembering what had happened to those vets—they were fired on by federal troops—the government feared that King's march would become a bloodbath. "The view of official intelligence," Pepper says, was that King would lose control of an increasingly angry mob to radicals in the wings, "and very likely that mob would become a revolutionary force." The prospect of troops firing on marchers, and riots spreading to other cities, was terrifying—especially since the army was already bogged down in a war. A decision was made to cut the movement down from its head.

Was America in such peril that assassinating King could be rationalized? In retrospect, that seems like an apocalyptic fantasy, but it's certainly the way internal security forces thought in those days. How much has changed?

Pepper thinks King's murder marked the end of effective public dissent in America. But he has the air of someone who can't quite awaken from a dream that was smashed in his youth. He's headed to Venezuela to start a fact-finding commission at the behest of Hugo Chávez. He'll return for the publication of his book, though he's not hoping for a spot on Nightline. But what if the media listen up? Won't that blow his locked-down theory of the U.S.? "It would be interesting," he replies. "I might believe they've now consolidated control to such an extent that this kind of thing no longer upsets them." Or maybe there's still reason to hope for an opening. Didn't King say, "Truth crushed to earth shall rise again"?

I've lost my faith in the progressive view of history—but I still act as if it's true, and that's some kind of tribute to the man who shaped my politics. So, happy birthday, Rev.

Verso Books, which is publishing An Act of State, also published a book by Richard Goldstein.

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