JIM LEHRER: Now four perspectives on this situation from NewsHour regulars, Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and journalist and author Haynes Johnson, joined tonight by Jesse Jackson, a former aide to Dr. King. Rev. Jackson, you share the desire of the King family for there to be a trial, is that right, sir?
JESSE JACKSON, Former King Aide: Indeed, I do. There needs to be a trial. I am convinced that James Earl Ray stalked Dr. King, was a factor in his killing if not, in fact, the trigger man. My concern is that James Earl Ray did not act alone. He had neither the money, the motive, nor the mobility to have done all that happened by himself. And so the challenge it seems for me and for those of us who want the trial is to find out who all was involved in the conspiracy to kill Dr. King.
JIM LEHRER: Is this a gut feeling on your part, Rev. Jackson, or is there evidence that has led you to believe there were other people involved?
JESSE JACKSON: We know the climate, if you recall, during that period where the FBI memo said it was their role to disrupt, discredit, destroy the black leadership to neutralize the rise of the black messiah. Hoover had this obsession that Dr. King posed a threat to national security. That was a piece of that. Then these well-funded right wing forces who saw his pulling down the curtain of racial segregation as a threat to the old order. So there were these elements out there. Now, James Earl Ray we know he stalked Dr. King; we know he was in Memphis; we know he got around the world. Somebody financed him. Somebody sponsored him. Who are all the forces involved in the conspiracy unfortunately remain unanswered.
JIM LEHRER: What about the prosecutor's point that there's no assurance that any of that would come out in the trial?
JESSE JACKSON: Well, I'll tell you what. If there is a trial, we may not know. If there is no trial, we're guaranteed not to know. And we deserve the right to know what all James Earl Ray does know, indeed, if he's terminally ill, before he dies.
JIM LEHRER: Why does is still matter after 29 years?
JESSE JACKSON: Well, the pain of it all matters very much, and if, in fact, there were forces sinister enough in our government and in the private sector, a part of such a conspiracy, they may still be alive; they may still be blowing up government buildings. We don't know what they're doing. We have a right to know, and we have a need to know.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, what's your view on this, not necessarily on the specifics of this case, but the whole idea of conspiracies and how that has--what has that done through our history, and how does the Martin Luther King thing fit into that?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I think what's happened is that without a trial, there's just not a closure to the Martin Luther King case, but there's two deeper reasons why I think we just don't want to let it go, and we still feel the need to answer unanswered questions. One is this deep perception that the whole tide of the country turned as a result of the combination of King's assassination, Kennedy's prior to that, and then Bobby Kennedy's shortly after that; that in the 1960's when King was still alive we were a more optimistic society, we were fighting for racial justice. The big public events of lives cut through everybody's private lives, and they were out there marching on behalf of justice, and then when these people died, somehow the country took a turn. The War in Vietnam got uglier. The anti-war movement got uglier. Black power replaced the civil rights movement, and the concern with poverty in cities lessened in a certain sense.
Now to be sure some of those things were changing even before King's death, but I think we--in the haze of memory, we think it might have been different. And I think also there's a psychological thing. When somebody dies at the height of vitality, as such a young man as King was and as the Kennedys were, you want to believe somehow that it's more than a random act. We never can believe that Amelia Earhardt died because her plane ran out of gas, so it seems more comforting in a weird way to imagine some big conspiracy about her that somehow she was a spy for the United States and then she got captured by the Japanese, and then Hirohito became her mistress master, et cetera. So I think somehow that's here too, that it gives greater weight to the depth if you think some big forces are behind it, all of which means there's no closure yet in our country about the events as well as the man.
JIM LEHRER: And Haynes, the three assassinations that Doris just mentioned, each one was resolved by certain fissile bodies as if they were committed--I'm talking about the two Kennedy assassinations and the assassination of Martin Luther King--by lone gunmen, and what do you think of Doris's theory? That's just hard to accept, is--
HAYNES JOHNSON, JournalistAuthor: The fact that we're talking about this now, 29 years later, within the space of less than five years, these three young leaders all died of gunshot wounds--bang, gone forever. It changed the history of America. We still don't know the truth. The conspiracy theories about the two Kennedy brothers, whatever the--investigations have gone on and on and on, and all the books in the cottage industry, and it sowed a distrust about leaders and institutions. After that came the horrible sort of problems of the war, which was already happening then. Then we had the riots in the cities, and we've had this sort of--Watergate, disillusionment. We've talked about it so many times on this program. But of those three losses I think the one that hurt the most was probably King. You can't equate the loss of one over another, and I don't mean to do it that way, but King was in a very special way the one that really touched the conscience of the country.
JIM LEHRER: And he was leading a revolution, was he not?
HAYNES JOHNSON: And leading a moral revolution, a non-violent revolution. So if the person who was leading the non-violent revolution at the age of 38, I believe he was only 38 years old--it's hard to realize how young these people were with all of that time ahead of them, and to be removed. And the fact is we still don't know. And in the case of King's death we really--there are many, many unanswered questions. Whether a trial occurs or not, whether we even know may not be the final closure. I agree with Doris. We need closure. I don't know that we're going to get it.
JIM LEHRER: Can there ever be closure in these things, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: There really can't unless you're going to get someone who say I did it and give conclusive evidence that he did.
JIM LEHRER: He has to prove his or her guilt.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: Beyond a shadow--not just a reasonable but a shadow of a doubt.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And that's very much in the American tradition. We like to see these things definitively answered. I think you can say that Europeans are much more accustomed to the idea that there are certain mysteries in life that will never be answered. And this all really connects to, I think, the yearning answers to questions like this through American history. A couple of years ago the remains of President Zachary Taylor were exhumed. He died in 1850 of a very sudden stomach illness, and his death, just like Martin Luther King's, had a very big impact on history because when Taylor died, his successor, Millard Fillmore, signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which really heated up the controversy that led to the Civil War just as when John Kennedy in 1963 died, many people feel that the succession of Lyndon Johnson caused us to be much more likely to plunge into the War in Vietnam.
So the death of Martin Luther King has that element both of mystery and also of great historical change, and you sort of ponder what would have happened had King lived. The civil rights leadership might have remained united, rather than fractured. How might King himself have changed? He was not given the opportunity to evolve, as we all have, in the last 30 years. And more than anything else, it just, you know, it's just so poignant to imagine that if Martin Luther King had lived, we might have achieved that dream of his of one America, which have gone very much in the other direction of.
JIM LEHRER: Rev. Jackson, do you have thoughts like that? Do you find yourself occasionally, like on a day like today, when it's very much in the news and we're talking about it here on television, do you think, my goodness, what might have happened had Martin Luther King not been assassinated--
JESSE JACKSON: No doubt about it. His sense of choosing healing and hope over hurt and hate, his willingness to embrace non-violence, which was counter culture to our culture of violence, the ability to penetrate deep across these lines of race, sex, and class, was the great moral force of this century. We miss that very much. I do not believe that John Kennedy and Dr. King and Robert Kennedy were killed by these lone, crazy gunmen. I'm not inclined to being paranoid, but I tell you, as my wife often says, just because I'm paranoid does not mean that somebody is not following me. I think there are legitimate unanswered questions, and those of us who ask those questions need not have a complex about it.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Doris, what is your analysis of the--of why--well, you touched on it earlier, but the lone--we just cannot accept that--and Rev. Jackson just said--if I hear you correctly, Rev. Jackson, it doesn't really matter what happens in this trial, if there is a trial, you will never believe that James Earl Ray did this by himself, right? There is no evidence--
JESSE JACKSON: I went to Brusher Mountain to talk with him, and I left convinced that--he was absolutely involved. We know he stalked Dr. King, but for James Earl Ray to have the money to travel as he did, the political motive and the mobility, he just could not have done that by himself.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, let me ask you another question. Is there any precedent for this in history, 30 years later, that there's even a possibility that there might be a trial to resolve a crime like this?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I'm not sure that I know that there is such a precedent. I mean, clearly, the Kennedy assassination still lives on in people's mind, and there were calls even after Oliver Stone's movie to reignite the hearings, the talk about it, and the Congress got back into it. I think when there is no closure, as we've been saying, unlike, for example, the McKinley and Garfield assassinations, which took place in open light, they actually had their guns behind a bandage on a receiving line or right behind them in a railroad station, they were arrested on the scene. They found notes that implicated them. They were hung or put to the electric chair within a month. It was over, but the Lincoln assassination, still there remained years and years after it for the same combination of reasons we're talking for today, everyone knew Booth was there; there were four other conspirators who were hanged; there was a question whether the fourth one had really been involved, Mary Seurat, so that lingered on for years and years and years. And I think it's because the same thing, people thought if Lincoln had lived, the mood, the turn, the whole tide of the country might have been different. People can't let it go somehow.
JESSE JACKSON: I'm glad that Merilee Evers did not give up on pursuing the killer of Medgar Evers, that she was persistent, and 20 odd years it finally happened.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Right.
JESSE JACKSON: And so I think there's a great burden now on James Earl Ray beyond the forensic evidence theory. He must take us beyond--and tell us something we really don't know. He really has that burden, and he has that opportunity. Perhaps James Earl Ray alone has that power.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, the lack of closure in these kinds of matters, doesn't that run counter to the entire basis of our democratic system and our system of justice; that we do bring things to a closure, and yet we can't bring the most heinous crimes to a closure?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Right. And that's what--that may be what's different about this, what we're talking about right now. It's not just the one death of Martin Luther King but all these events that happen so quickly together. And we still don't know the answers to them, and the fact is that we used to have a great deal more belief that we would find the truth through judicial process, through investigations, whether it's the Congress or the process of the courts. And in these cases it's not true. We wouldn't have believed that the FBI might have been involved, and as we now know they were doing in shadowing King and trying to destroy him. Jesse Jackson is correct. That's not fiction. That's a fact. We now know there were conspiracy theories that we--
JIM LEHRER: There's a leap, there's a leap to say that--
HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: --that was part of the assassination of Martin Luther King.
LARRY JOHNSON: It doesn't mean that that happened at all.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
HAYNES JOHNSON: But it means that the corrosive sort of disbelief and lack of trust in all of our leaders is spun by this kind of terrible unknown fact.
JESSE JACKSON: But it's not a leap if the FBI memo says it was their mission to disrupt, discredit and destroy black leadership and to neutralize the rise of a black messiah. Neutralize is not exactly a neutral term.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One more point, and that is that Americans always like to feel that this is a country of institutions and movements; that they're not dependent on one leader, but the fact is that Americans really have to develop and understand that that is really human life; that sometimes these things are dependent. It was the death of Lincoln that caused a much harsher attitude toward the South at the end of the Civil War.
JIM LEHRER: And that of course was a real conspiracy.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: A real conspiracy.
JIM LEHRER: That wasn't a lone actor jumping off the stage.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Booth had allies.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And they knew that by murdering Lincoln, they could change history, and so the fascinating thing will be to discover whether the rather large number of people in 1968 in America who sadly would have liked to see Martin Luther King dead were able to change history by essentially causing this assassination to occur.
JIM LEHRER: Refresh our memories here, Michael. In addition to the Lincoln assassination, have there been any other major proved conspiracies like that in our history?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Very few in American life, and that's the great irony, and you have sort of little examples, such as Warren Harding died in 1923. There was a great suggestion that he might have been poisoned perhaps by some group of conspirators, but that didn't change history, and people sort of went on. Even FDR, when Roosevelt died in 1945 of a cerebral hemorrhage, Josef Stalin till the moment of his death was absolutely convinced that Roosevelt had been poisoned by people who were against good relations with the Soviet Union. So when you do have mystery around the death of a leader and also when it changes history, this is almost inevitable.
JESSE JACKSON: Can you say this, that the tragic irony of all of this is that those who hated him the most have been the prime beneficiaries of his work--because of Dr. King, the cotton curtain came down. We ended apartheid in our country as a matter of law; we regained our moral authority. Now you can have the Olympics in Atlanta, the Super Bowl in New Orleans. You can now have the professional teams in the South. This new America that allows us to challenge the moral authority of South Africa or China, all this somewhat emanates from Martin Luther King, Jr. more than any other single image; because he's bigger than life and because that's so real, we still miss him very much.
HAYNES JOHNSON: You asked Doris whether other historical--times like this in our history--it isn't the history books that tell us; it's Shakespeare. This is our Shakespearean tragedy. That's what it really is. It's now in the midst of--and look at the Shakespeare--Richard III--I'm serious.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
HAYNES JOHNSON: We still don't know. We will be playing off this tragedy; that it still affects us powerfully as we watch those scenes today 30 years later, and maybe a hundred years from now.
JIM LEHRER: And to listen to Rev. Jackson, you hear it even stronger.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Well, thank you, Doris, gentlemen, all of you very much for being with us.