In a public statement, they demanded a public tribunal modeled on South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation” process to persuade either Congress or the Justice Department to revisit all four assassinations.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), two of Robert Kennedy’s children, signed the statement, as did Isaac N. Farris, a nephew of King and former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a Memphis pastor and mentor to King. It is also supported by G. Robert Blakey, the chief counsel of the former House Select Committee on Assassinations; Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg; Robert McClelland, the doctor who worked on President Kennedy after his 1963 shooting in Dallas; and entertainment figures such as Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Oliver Stone and Rob Reiner. The statement was issued Saturday, during the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.
The 1960s assassinations have spawned conspiracy theories and claims of governmental misconduct for decades. In each case, local police, federal investigators and state and local judges have reaffirmed the findings that lone gunmen killed both Kennedys and King, and that the three men convicted of murder killed Malcolm X. But those official conclusions have left many unsatisfied.
“The one thing you can say,” Robert Kennedy Jr. said in a recent interview, “Sirhan Sirhan did not fire the shots that killed my father.”
The son of the former senator revealed to The Washington Post last year that he had visited Sirhan in prison in December 2017 and came away convinced of Sirhan’s innocence. He has continued to research possible alternative theories into the June 1968 slaying of his father in Los Angeles. He and others have noted that his father was shot at point-blank range in the back of the head but that Sirhan was in front of Kennedy and was tackled before ever getting his gun close to Kennedy.
Sirhan was convicted of first-degree murder at trial in 1969, and a jury sentenced him to death, although the sentence was later commuted to life. He remains in prison in California, and the state and federal courts have rejected all appeals, saying the jury could have been persuaded by the evidence that Sirhan was close enough to kill Robert Kennedy.
Blakey, whose high-profile investigation of the King and John Kennedy assassinations in 1979 determined that Kennedy was the likely victim of a conspiracy, said he remains deeply interested in the role of the CIA in the JFK case. In fact, he has a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit pending against the agency. He said that the FBI had fully cooperated with his investigations, particularly into the King assassination in Memphis in April 1968 but that the CIA has refused to open all its files to this day.
“All I’d like to do is see the stuff the agency has on [John] Kennedy,” Blakey said Wednesday. “That’s all I want.”
Blakey said numerous credible witnesses told the Warren Commission and his House committee that shots were fired both from in front of and behind President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.
“If there were two shooters, there’s a conspiracy,” he said. The CIA has also been implicated by some scholars in the death of Robert Kennedy, most recently in a book published last month, “A Lie Too Big to Fail” by Lisa Pease, one of the statement’s signers.
The Warren Commission first investigated the assassination of President Kennedy and determined in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald acted as a lone gunman. Many have criticized that finding, including Blakey, who believes organized crime figures arranged to kill Kennedy.
Questions have persisted about the killing of Malcolm X, by multiple gunmen in a crowded New York City ballroom in February 1965, with criticism of the New York police investigation and the conviction of two men who maintained their innocence, joined by a third man who admitted his guilt. All three men were convicted of the murder in 1966 and sentenced to life in prison; all three have since been paroled, and the New York courts have declined to review the case.
Two books about the assassination, including one by letter-signer Karl Evanzz, have identified other men as the shooters. Rodnell Collins, a first cousin of Malcolm X and founder of a family foundation, also endorsed the statement.
Evanzz said Wednesday that “one of my main concerns about the assassination of Malcolm X is why the FBI didn’t move to indict some of the leaders of the Nation of Islam who began plotting to have Malcolm X killed within days of his ouster from the sect in March 1964.” He cited a memo from an FBI wiretap in which "Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam, told Boston Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan that it was ‘time to close his eyes,’ referring to Malcolm X.”
Evanzz noted that after a blogger in 2011 exposed the identity of the man he alleged had fired the fatal shotgun blasts at Malcolm X, “the FBI refused to reopen its examination of the assassination, saying that it lacked the resources to do so, and that no federal law had been violated. That’s ludicrous.”
Two of Martin Luther King Jr.’s children told The Post last year that they did not believe James Earl Ray killed their father, as did Lawson and Farris, as well as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young. Bernice King, the youngest of King’s four children and the executive director of the King Center in Atlanta, told The Post, “It pains my heart that James Earl Ray had to spend his life in prison paying for things he didn’t do.”
But neither those children nor Dexter King, also a child of Martin Luther King Jr. who believes in Ray’s innocence, signed the letter, and they did not respond to requests for comment. Ray pleaded guilty in 1969 to killing King and received a life sentence, although he soon claimed he did not fire the shot and was manipulated into being in Memphis by a man he was subsequently unable to locate.
“The King case is basically over as far as the family is concerned,” said William F. Pepper, who represented the family at a 1999 civil trial in Memphis, where a jury placed blame for the shooting on government agencies and organized crime elements. Pepper said his investigation showed that King was shot by a Memphis police marksman, not Ray, and that marksman is still alive. But the former police officer has denied involvement to The Post.
Witnesses have provided statements to Pepper indicating that the FBI helped finance and organize the King killing with help from organized crime elements in Memphis.
“It’s time,” said Pepper, who signed the statement, “that the American people are aware of the truth of this assassination.”
The letter calls on Congress to enforce the JFK Records Collection Act of 1992, which mandated that all of the government’s records related to the John F. Kennedy assassination be released by now. Some of these records are still withheld.
The statement was written in part by Adam Walinsky, a former top aide to Robert Kennedy, with input from other assassination scholars. He cited the “wreckage” from the slayings as the reasons to revisit them and hold those responsible accountable.
“What a profound effect these assassinations had on this country,” Walinsky said. “These people, and the forces who were responsible for these murders, are still among us. The institutions are still there. And they’re still doing all the same things. So that’s the problem.”
A news release and the full statement with a list of signers is here.