Traces of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Personal Involvement in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination

Part 1 (of 2)

Talk of a RFK/MLK Presidential Ticket was LBJ’s “Worst Nightmare”

A Primer, condensed and recompiled from Who REALLY Killed Martin Luther King Jr.?

People who have not intensely studied President Lyndon B. Johnson (i.e. the great majority, if not nearly the entirety, of the population) fail to perceive how his psychological-psychiatric disorders could lead him to commit brazen criminal acts. 

J. Edgar Hoover (and doubtlessly many other political leaders the world over) similarly suffered from the same disorders as his neighbor and friend, LBJ.  I have written at length about this point, but for our purposes here, these brief reedited excerpts from my books, as referenced within, and augmented by additional information obtained since their publication, summarize the primary issues.

The thirty-sixth president was cruel, mendacious, narcissistic—concerned only about the pseudo-legend he worked an entire lifetime to create, resulting in the false legacy that has persisted today.  This is not merely my personal opinion:

  • A psychologist, D. Jablow Hershman, in her book Power Beyond Reason: The Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson, wrote that “the United States was being led by a man who already was or rapidly was becoming psychotic. LBJ’s grandiosity, megalomania and paranoia reached dimensions that could no longer pass for normalcy. Signs of grandiosity and paranoia were present before LBJ became President, but assuming responsibility for the war in Vietnam appears to have been more stress than he could bear as 1966 wore on.” Furthermore, Hershman concluded, “LBJ’s manic furies and incapacitating depressions, his pathological ego, megalomania and paranoia were products of his manic depression.  Unfortunate though they were for him and the people with whom he came in contact, their effects became tragic when he took over the conduct of the Vietnam War . . . The effect on Johnson was catastrophic. His illness worsened past the point of psychotic collapse. The consequences were fatal, if not for him, certainly for those who died in Vietnam in his needless war—LBJ’s war—for he would not accept guidance from the advisors who might have imparted some degree of sanity to his decisions.”[1]
  • A number of aides who worked for Johnson – including Bill Moyers and Richard Goodwin – knew all about Johnson’s psychotic episodes but feared challenging him because, after all, “who would believe us?”  For much of his time in the Oval Office, the country was being run by a man experiencing periodic psychotic or depressive mental states, unbeknownst to most citizens.[2]
  • These were among the disorders that other psychiatrists would later affirm Lyndon Johnson had shared with J. Edgar Hoover. They were far more than neighbors and friends; they were “birds of a feather” in many other ways, as well. One of those, Dr. Harold Lief, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania stated: “There is no doubt that Hoover had a personality disorder, a narcissistic disorder with mixed obsessive features. I picked up some paranoid elements, undue suspiciousness and some sadism. A combination of narcissism and paranoia produces what is known as an Authoritarian Personality. Hoover would have made a perfect high-level Nazi.” [3] 

Exactly one year before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, his Riverside Church “Beyond Vietnam” speech on April 4, 1967, marked the culmination of his long-simmering revulsion at Johnson’s Vietnam policies and represented his final break with the President. Rumors soon began surfacing about King possibly making a run for the presidency in 1968 and had even included a proposed vice-presidential candidate, the famed pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, who had also become a strong antiwar proponent.  

By the end of 1967 and in early 1968, the talk began to turn to Robert F. Kennedy’s expected run for the presidency.  In the period leading up to his March decision to enter the presidential race, RFK had been trying to contact Dr. King to tell him of his decision to run for the presidency and seek his support, and J. Edgar Hoover had warned President Johnson of that, according to Dr. William F. Pepper.[4]

Though not stated by Dr. Pepper, rumors also abounded that Kennedy might have been considering asking King to become his nominee for the vice presidency of the United States if he won the nomination at the Chicago convention. The very idea of that possibility must have kept Johnson up at night before he made his stunning announcement on March 31, 1968 that he would not run for reelection.  Dr. Pepper – having devoted over forty years into investigating, researching, and documenting the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. – eventually came to the conclusion that Johnson’s decision to withdraw from the 1968 presidential election was indeed related to the plot to murder King.[5]  

Within four days of Johnson’s announcement —April 4, 1968 — that part of it would no longer be a worry, and two months after that, by June 6, 1968, President Johnson would be able to sleep well again, no longer worried about Robert Kennedy’s presidential aspirations.

Secrets Between Friends—Required Elements of Covert Ops

Essential to understanding the dynamics that played out in the months before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination is the fact that covert operations require close and trusting personal relationships between the highest-level sponsors as well as other key lower level operatives. In this case, as in the other 1960s political murders by those who were behind the successful coup d’état of 1963, it was the major players back in Washington and their personal relationships to the key local operators who would be orchestrating all the moves in the streets and alleys of Memphis, Tennessee.

Buford Ellington with LBJ

First, there was the long-term closeness of President Lyndon B. Johnson to Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington, both of whom were also united by their respective ties to the Dixie Mafia.[6]

Whatever weaknesses Buford Ellington might have had—possibly merely intrinsic sycophancy, which many men automatically proffered to Johnson for their own career purposes—Johnson would have exploited them, as evidenced by the governor’s complete obedience to a number of obvious concessions as noted within my book, Who REALLY Killed Martin Luther King Jr.? Arguably the most important were the fact that Tennessee authorities, led by Governor Ellington, did everything possible to ensure that James Earl Ray would never receive a criminal trial and Ellington’s decision to fire Harry Avery, the state commissioner of the Department of Corrections, who believed that Dr. King’s murder was the result of a conspiracy.

According to Ellington’s press secretary, Hudley Crockett, the closeness of their relationship was “something to behold.” A former speaker in the Tennessee House of Representatives, William L. “Dick” Barry, who served as Buford’s attorney, said that “they talked on the phone quite often, [and] went hunting out in Texas . . .” [7]

It is that kind of personal closeness between the two that suggests their relationship was one of implicit confidences, trust, and mutual knowledge of the other’s idiosyncrasies, foibles, biases, concerns, and pet peeves. Each would also understand, intrinsically, the other’s ethical margins, arguably minimal or non-existent in LBJ’s case at least; he would have made mental notes of such traits of Buford’s during these escapades, for later use.  Johnson liked to say, “Give me a man’s balls, and his heart and mind will follow.”  Exploiting others’ weaknesses, whether through blackmail or bullying, mimicry or bribery, pleading or threats, was arguably one of Lyndon Johnson’s strongest traits.   Johnson’s use of other men’s weaknesses for his own purposes was vividly described by author David Halberstam, who stated that Lyndon Johnson methodically analyzed other men, categorizing all of them according to their strengths and weaknesses, always much more interested in the latter as a way to exploit them for some future scheme: “To Johnson there was a smell of blood, more could come of this.”[8] 

Johnson’s lust for power was something he craved from childhood and he came to understand that having complete power over others – the many people perfectly willing to completely transform themselves into sycophantic minions to assure the President of their loyalty – brought with it their automatic willingness to suspend their own scruples, submitting to his own, less-stringent, standards.  Robert F. Kennedy would describe this trait as, “Johnson had this ability ‘to eat people up, even people who are considered rather strong figures . . . He’s mean, bitter, vicious—an animal in many ways.’”[9]

Johnson’s political connections in Texas also tied him to Houston attorney Percy Foreman, who would become a key figure in assuring that the designated patsy James Earl Ray was denied a fair trial and would remain in prison for the rest of his life. As John Avery Emison, a nephew of the aforementioned ex-Corrections Commissioner Harry S. Avery, put it, “The last thing President Johnson wanted—thus, the last thing Governor Ellington wanted—was for weak evidence to be revealed in court that could suggest the involvement of a person or persons other than Ray.”[10] It was essential to the entire operation that all of it be the work of a single patsy, just as it was in Dallas in 1963.

Frank C. Holloman

Another of those trusting relationships that “speaks volumes” was the one between Hoover and Memphis Police and Fire Department Director Frank C. Holloman, who was born in Itta Bena, MS in 1914, and grew up in nearby Ruleville, 130 miles south of Memphis.[11]

His racial attitudes can therefore be reasonably imputed to having been formed during the 1920s and early 1930s living in rural Mississippi, a time and place where the KKK thrived.  After graduating from Ruleville High School in 1932, Holloman attended the University of Mississippi where he earned a law degree five years later, in 1937.  Before his appointment as commissioner to both the Fire and Police Departments of Memphis on January 1, 1968, he had been a twenty-five-year veteran of the FBI and for nearly eight of those years (1952–59) had worked directly under J. Edgar Hoover.[12]

The same affinity Holloman had for Hoover would indubitably extend to Associate Director Clyde Tolson, also working side by side with both of them on a daily basis for the better part of a decade. After that, they remained in close contact for several more years when Holloman was appointed as the senior agent in charge of the Memphis field office, working there six more years until 1965, when he retired. He stayed in Memphis, and was appointed to the position of director of the Memphis Police and Fire Department just a few months before the assassination team began their final preparations.[13]

One of Holloman’s stated objectives upon assuming the office of director of MPD/MFD, according to his own words, was to ensure that “the FBI’s intelligence techniques and political standards [would] serve as a model for the police force [ . . . ] his first priority [ . . . ] was to push ‘for a good, efficient intelligence bureau’ and to ensure there was always ‘a two-way street in terms of the flow of information’ between the MPD and the FBI.”[14] (Emphasis added.)

As described in detail in my book, Who Really Killed MLK, Hoover personally directed the overall operation of the assassination plot, through his closest, most intimate associate and frequent travel companion, Clyde Tolson – assisted by Cartha “Deke” DeLoach and William Sullivan, both assistant directors of the FBI – directly to their mutual friend, Frank Holloman. There can be no question that they would have regularly communicated throughout this period, probably on a daily basis. This was undoubtedly the key element that ensured close coordination of every move made during the planning and execution of the plot. Holloman’s role in the plot undoubtedly started well before his appointment four months before its execution on April 4, possibly as much as two years before, after he left his position at Memphis State University, considering the plot to kill King was being planned at least four years before the assassination occurred.

Honor Among Thieves and Murderers, Too: The Value of Friends in High Places

These combined relationships were clearly one of the primary reasons that Tennessee was chosen as the ideal state and Memphis was chosen as the city within which the plan would be executed. This would only become clear over four decades later when Dr. Pepper’s witness, Ron Adkins, decided to come clean and swore under oath that Clyde Tolson had told his Dixie Mafia contacts to make sure that King would be murdered in Memphis for that very reason. It ensured the highest-level plotters in the White House and J. Edgar Hoover’s “Seat of Government (SOG)” that the murder of Dr. King would be firmly under the local control of the men who Hoover knew best, men that he would implicitly trust. Those close friendships, between Hoover and Holloman, and between Lyndon Johnson and Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington, subsequently joined by Percy Foreman – Johnson’s long-time personal friend, undoubtedly insinuated into that arrangement through that association – are essential to a complete understanding of how this abominable crime was carried out.

As the director of all of Tennessee’s penitentiaries since 1963, Harry S. Avery was responsible for every prisoner in the state. Previously, when Governor Ellington announced that he had reappointed Avery to his position in December 1966, he had praised him for his accomplishments in effecting improvements throughout the system, including specifically the program to rehabilitate youthful prisoners. But when Avery began discussing plans to meet with Ray in conversations with the warden of the main prison, Lake F. Russell, Russell decided that he could use this information to ingratiate himself with the governor. He also realized, of course, that doing so might also result in getting Avery an early retirement in order to make way for Russell’s own career advancement.[15]

After Avery’s first meeting with Ray on March 12, 1969, Russell tipped off the governor and Ellington ordered Avery to drop the investigation. In the following weeks, negative news stories began appearing in Nashville newspapers—including details that had been circulated by Russell, and reported to Ellington but evidently leaked originally by his press secretary, Hudley Crockett. The circle clearly started, and ended, with Governor Ellington himself and was done merely to paper the file as justification for his decision to terminate Avery.

According to author Emison, Governor Ellington had his staff manipulate Avery into a vulnerable position, having the appearance of official misconduct, and then ordered the director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), W. E. “Bud” Hopton, to question Avery “at length,” after which he reviewed the notes and files Avery had accumulated during his interviews with Ray. Ellington’s order for Hopton to investigate Harry Avery was based on the presumption that Avery had allegedly coerced Ray to state that there was in fact a conspiracy to murder Martin Luther King and that Ray had unwittingly become involved in it as the fall guy. Ellington—indubitably under pressure by Johnson and Hoover to get this maverick under control—went to great lengths to derail Avery’s attempts to discover the truth of how Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.

On May 29, the Nashville Banner’s page-wide headline read, “ELLINGTON BOOTS AVERY” with a sub-headline that read, “Lake Russell Named Commissioner.”[16] By the following day, the story had grown in scope and geographic coverage. Newspapers from around the country carried articles that conveyed the real story: that Governor Ellington had fired Harry Avery “because he was getting too close to unraveling the conspiracy.”[17]

Governor Ellington’s loyalty—or rather his sycophantic subservience—to Lyndon Johnson was demonstrated when he fired the state’s commissioner of corrections, Harry S. Avery, for having the temerity to believe that Dr. King was murdered as the result of a conspiracy, although he attempted to blame it on what he said was Avery’s plan to write a book about his own knowledge of the case based upon his position.[18]

Hopton’s TBI investigative report was referenced by the HSCA’s Final Report (in a footnote on page 658), but it mysteriously disappeared from the Tennessee state archives at about the same time. Inexplicably, all of the HSCA evidence files were sealed for fifty years (until 2029), possibly due to the contents of that document, according to Emison: “The memorandum may have contained information embarrassing to the Ellington or even LBJ administrations . . . [and might be] the only remaining record of key pieces of evidence.”[19]

Proof: Injustice in the Justice Department

During the same period of time (late 1968 or early 1969), Harry Avery had overheard a telephone conversation between certain persons in the governor’s office and “high officials in the US Justice Department which confirmed that an understanding was in place: “There would be no trial for James Earl Ray and there would be no evidence tested in open court.”[20]

The gist of the conversations was that the state’s case was very weak and no significant evidence existed which proved that Ray had shot the fatal bullet that killed Dr. King.

This meant to author Emison that the governor’s office had entered into an agreement with federal authorities to ensure that justice for James Earl Ray would be subverted, and that he would be jailed for the rest of his life and the case closed with no possible avenues for ever reopening it. Emison, moreover, stated that one of Governor Ellington’s senior staff members confirmed to him that there were many such conversations, not just the single one that his uncle Harry had overheard.[21]

The “federal authorities” to which Emison referred, with whom the governor talked “many” times, would have undoubtedly included the man he was closest to, Lyndon B. Johnson, and his highest-level aides. Others would have included J. Edgar Hoover and his highest-level associate, Clyde Tolson—along with the FBI liaison to the White House, Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, acting as the chief of operations of the entire project to “neutralize” Martin Luther King Jr. that had started at least a decade earlier when they put him under constant surveillance.

“Deke” DeLoach, Hoover’s sycophantic liaison to LBJ

Coming Next in Part 2: One week before his murder, after three years of plotting . . . “The Culmination of Months of Planning: Dr. King Takes the Bait

[1] See: Nelson, “LBJ The Mastermind . . .” pp. xi, 5-6, 63, 611 (Ref. Hershman, Power Beyond Reason: The Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson, p. 212)

[2] Ibid., pp. 614-615 (Ref. Goodwin, Richard, Remembering America, pp. 402–403)

[3] Summers, Anthony. Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. P. 434

[4] Pepper, William F. The Plot to Kill King, p. 8.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Emison, John Avery, The Martin Luther King Congressional Cover-Up: The Railroading of James Earl Ray p. 185

[7] Ibid.

[8] Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest …. p. 446

[9] Guthman, Edwin O. and Jeffery Shulman. Robert Kennedy in His Own Words. New York: Bantam, 1988, p. 26   (Interview with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., February 27, 1965).

[10] Op. Cit. (Emison) p. 187

[11] See Find-a-Grave:

[12] McKnight, Gerald D., The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI, and the Poor People’s Campaign., p. 47

[13] Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI. See:

[14] Op. Cit. (McKnight)

[15] Emison, pp. 188-197

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 197

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. p. 199

[20] Ibid. pp. 98, 262

[21] Ibid.

4 thoughts on “Traces of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Personal Involvement in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination

  1. Two judges who had pending motions regarding James Earl Ray died before ruling on them. Criminal Court Judge W. Preston Battle died in 1969 less than a month after accepting Ray’s guilty plea. In 1976 US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Ernest Miller died after twice ruling in Ray’s favor. Both judges died of apparent heart attacks.


    1. Yes, I was aware of both of them being heart attacks. I would have mentioned something about it being mere coincidence that the CIA’s “heart attack gun” was one of the tools used in the 1960s that was not revealed to the public until 1975 (Church Committee) but of course proving that it was involved in them wasn’t even possible then, much less now. But it is a point to ponder (not to mention others that I’ve blogged about, including Adlai Stevenson and Thomas Merton)


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