Vice President Kamala Harris this month echoed the conspiracy theory that the U.S. government assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. to halt his labor activism, a move that could further undermine the Biden administration’s efforts to battle misinformation.
“This is the stuff that you know that we have to remind people of,” Harris, in an interview with the Nation, said of the historical connection between the civil rights movement and the labor movement. “This is why Dr. King was assassinated, because he was bringing together the civil rights movement with the workers.”
Harris seemingly endorsed a popular conspiracy theory that government agencies conspired to assassinate King because in the last years of his life the civil rights icon shifted his focus to organized labor. Economic interests within the government, according to this theory, viewed King’s labor activism as an intolerable threat to the capitalist system. There is no evidence to support this theory, nor to suggest that James Earl Ray, who was convicted in King’s 1968 assassination, was motivated to kill King because of his support for the labor movement.
The vice president’s allusion to a government plot against King puts her in company with conspiracy theorists and radical ideologues. William Pepper, a lawyer who frequently headlines 9/11 conspiracy events and believes the assassination of Robert Kennedy was a conspiracy, claims King’s assassination was coordinated by the FBI, CIA, and members of organized crime. Marxist groups, including International Marxist Tendency and publications like Socialist Appeal and Green Left, have also charged that the U.S. government murdered King.
A spokeswoman for the vice president did not return a request for comment on the parallels between Harris’s remarks and conspiracy rhetoric.
Harris is the latest Biden administration official to push an unfounded conspiracy theory. Nina Jankowicz, who ran the now-defunct Disinformation Governance Board, and former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, who advised the board, both suggested without evidence that the New York Post‘s story on Hunter Biden’s laptop was a bogus “Russian influence op.” The Post‘s reporting has since been authenticated by other outlets, including the New York Times.
Harris is not the first prominent figure to advance this conspiracy theory. Many of King’s relatives believe he was murdered because of his focus on economic activism, including his support for striking sanitation workers in Memphis just prior to his assassination and his plans to organize a union-supported “army of the poor” to march on Washington, D.C. King’s son Dexter says his father was killed “because he challenged the establishment” and “talked about dealing with poverty, by taking poor people to Washington. … He became too powerful.”
In 1999, members of King’s family brought a civil suit against Loyd Jowers, who claimed he participated in a conspiracy to assassinate King. The jury ruled in the family’s favor and concluded the government did conspire to kill King. But some criticized the verdict for reaching that judgment based on inconclusive evidence—because the government was not a defendant in the suit, it offered no counter-evidence to the allegations in the trial, and inconsistencies in Jowers’s testimony went unchallenged.
The Justice Department under the Clinton administration took up its own investigation following the civil trial and found Jowers’s allegations not credible based on contradictions in his and other witnesses’ testimony. Jowers’s sisters, who initially corroborated his story, later recanted and claimed he made up the tale in hopes of selling the story.
James Lawson, a civil rights activist who worked with King, testified in the trial that he believed King was killed in a conspiracy because his calls to pressure Washington “to eradicate poverty,” among other statements, “raised the anxiety levels in the White House and elsewhere across Washington.”
“I have no doubt,” Lawson reportedly said of King’s role in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and his plans to march on Washington, “that the government viewed all this seriously enough to plan his assassination.”
“Because he took on those forces, powerful economic forces that dominated politics in this land, they killed him,” said Pepper, the conspiracy theorist who represented the King family in that trial. “They still exist today, the forces of evil, the powerful economic forces that dominate the government.”
Gerald Posner, an investigative journalist who wrote a book on King’s assassination, said after the trial, “It distresses me greatly that the legal system was used in such a callous and farcical manner in [the trial]. If the King family wanted a rubber stamp of their own view of the facts, they got it.”
Even with holes in the allegations of a conspiracy, the narrative has won the support of much of the American public—a 2008 CNN poll found 55 percent of Americans believe King’s murder was part of a larger conspiracy.