The human conscience is eternal and will never die.
In 1955, at age 26, Martin Luther King, Jr. was thrust into civil-rights leadership in Montgomery, Alabama, after Rosa Parks had made her courageous stand not to move to the back of the bus. A group of blacks, formed by the community to lead a bus boycott, chose King as a compromise candidate to lead their moral crusade.
Immediately, King was besieged with threats. The Ku Klux Klan gave him three days to leave town. He spent a night in jail for driving 30 mph in a 25-mph zone. A bomb exploded on his front porch. But it only made him stronger.
On November 22, 1963, I was a sophomore at the University of Minnesota when JFK was killed in Dallas. The following summer, I moved to Miami to study computer technology at Miami-Dade College.
I had spent my youth in pool halls in Minneapolis and was a very good player. There was a pool hall across the street from the college in Miami. When I wasn't in school, I was in the pool hall.
The pool hall was owned by an Italian family. Lots of Italians hung out there. I was a 20 year-old pool hustler and student from Minneapolis. All the pool hall patrons were Miami or NYC gamblers and hustlers and some heavy hitters. It was like being in Tony Soprano’s club meeting room.
In the spring of 1965, two guys approached me for a private conversation in the back of the pool hall. Their names were Ira and Raoul (could be spelled Raul?).
Ira was in his 20s, about 5’ 10” with black curly hair. He did all the talking.
Raoul was probably in his early 30s. He was shorter (5’ 7”) with bronze skin and was very thin. He had very pronounced cheek bones and deep-set, dark eyes. His eyes were cold (unemotional). I had imagined him to be Puerto Rican or Cuban or Portuguese or part Indian. Miami had a lot of Cubans. He never spoke.
Ira knew I was a gambler who occasionally did odd jobs. He had a proposition for me. He had some sort of operation going whereby they would smuggle butter (probably guns, but he told me butter) into Cuba and sometimes bring people back (Cubans were leaving for Miami back then – Castro had taken over). He needed to recruit a couple of "deckhands" (which probably meant a couple of guys for protection) for the trips to and from Cuba.
I told him I'd think about it. It seemed like an interesting proposition, plus I'd make $50 per trip. I was a struggling college student looking for some extra money. And it seemed harmless to me, just going for a dangerous boat ride. But the next time I saw Ira, a few days later, I turned him down, mainly because the trips conflicted with my class schedule.
Weeks later, Ira (with Raoul, silent as usual) showed up and had another proposition for me. Somehow, he knew I was from Minnesota. He told me I was perfect for a job he had planned in a city in Quebec (I assumed Montreal). He said I had a "northern" accent and that he needed someone who could pass for Canadian. Most of the pool hall guys all sounded like they were from Brooklyn.
Ira told me there was a warehouse (in Montreal?) full of machine guns. He had some sort of flim-flam scheme to steal the machine guns and sell them to a French-speaking separatist group in Quebec that he already had lined up. But he needed a person with a Canadian accent to pull it off. Since I was a pool hustler too, he figured I had the right stuff.
A boat ride to Cuba was one thing, but messing with someone who had a warehouse full of machine guns was beyond what I had in mind for adventure. Plus, as the front man, I would be exposed to whomever got hustled. So I turned Ira down on the spot.
I left Miami in August of 1965 and returned to Minnesota.
In April of 1966, I was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed at Ft. McPherson in Atlanta.
In December of 1967, I took a 2-week leave from the Army and went down to Miami to hang out with some of my old friends. One day while I was in Miami, I saw Ira drive up to the pool hall in a brand new white Ford Mustang. I said, "Looks like you pulled off the Montreal job." He smiled and winked at me. I took it for a "Yes."
On April 3, 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) was in Memphis, Tennessee, speaking to a capacity crowd of striking garbage workers and others at Mason Temple about the climate of racial hatred.
King’s final words in his last speech were… “I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
At 6:01 the following evening, King was struck in the face by a rifle bullet as he stood on the balcony outside of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. He was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital and pronounced dead at 7:05. He was 39 years old.
Racial riots broke out that night in over 100 cities, including Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York, Newark, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Nashville, Kansas City, Oakland, Memphis, etc.
On April 5, President Johnson called out 4,000 federal troops to quell the rioting in Washington. 20,000 Army and 34,000 National Guardsmen had been ordered to anti-riot duty. And I was right in the middle of it all.
April 11, 1968, was my scheduled discharge date from the U.S. Army. I was stationed at Fort McPherson in the city of Atlanta, Georgia -- a small military installation, headquarters for the Third Army.
However, King’s funeral was to be conducted on April 9 in Atlanta. My plans to become a civilian once again were temporarily put on hold. The entire world, including the Army, expected massive outbreaks of chaos during or shortly after the ceremony. Instead of packing to go home, I was in combat gear, practicing bayonet thrusts, wondering how much live ammo would be distributed for riot control.
Lester Maddox, an outspoken racist who once chased blacks out of his restaurant by passing out axe handles to his white patrons, was the Governor at the time. He was furious that flags at state buildings in the capitol of Atlanta, and elsewhere, were at half-mast the day of the funeral. Surrounded by 200 armed state agents, he proceeded to personally hoist the two flags back up, but backed off when the major TV networks showed up to record the action. This added mayhem gave those of us standing by with bayonets an extra sense of anticipation.
The funeral service was held in Ebenezer Baptist Church. King’s casket was placed on an old farm wagon, with steel-rim, wooden-spoke wheels. 30,000 marchers were sent ahead to start the procession. An estimated 200,000 mourners took part in the procession that eventually passed directly in front of the Capitol.
Lester Maddox, along with 160 helmeted troopers and 40 enforcement officers from other state agencies, remained inside the statehouse. There were eight armed men at each entrance. Maddox had given them the following orders: “If they should go so far as to break through the locked doors, then start shooting and don’t stop until they are stacked so high above the threshold the followers would be unable to climb over them.”
The procession passed by solemnly and the funeral occurred without incident.
Two days later, I was discharged from the Army and returned home to Minneapolis.
In 2001-2007, I wrote a column for a weekly regional newspaper. In 2003, I wrote a piece about my experience at the MLK funeral. While researching the column, I learned the following:
1) A white Ford Mustang (like Ira's car) was involved as a getaway vehicle in the MLK killing.
2) James Earl Ray (supposed killer) fled the USA through Montreal and on to Europe (where he was captured).
3) Ray claimed a man named Raoul had recruited him in Montreal.
4) Ray claimed Raoul hired him to purchase a rifle (used in the MLK killing).
5) Ray claimed he passed the gun on and didn't know what was about to happen.
6) Ray described Raoul – the same description of my Raoul in Miami.
7) Some JFK conspiracy buffs have tied Raoul to the JFK assassination.
Another strange coincidence -- Ft. McPherson was the home of the 111th Military Intelligence Group. A small squad of trained snipers from this unit was present in Memphis during the shooting. According to witnesses, they had even checked out positions on the roof of the fire station directly behind the Lorraine Motel prior to King’s assassination.
When I wrote the column in 2003 about MLK, I soon realized that Ray's Raoul could very well have been my Raoul in Miami. The descriptions matched, plus the tie-in to Montreal and the white Mustang.
As bizarre as it seems, it's possible I was being recruited to be a patsy (in 1965) -- like Lee Harvey Oswald & James Earl Ray. Oswald and Ray were just there to be the lone-nut fall guy and perhaps get their prints on the weapons too. Can't prove it, of course. Plus, that was over 40 years ago now. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of most of it until I wrote the MLK column in 2003.
This has haunted me for years now -- Raoul in Miami, Raoul in Memphis, Raoul in Montreal, and maybe even Raoul in Dallas in 1963.
And if you dig deep enough, the New Orleans mafia seems to possibly be involved once again (just like the JFK assassination). JFK and MLK were assassinated by conspiratorial forces. Perhaps I unknowingly interfaced with one or more of the conspirators.
Or perhaps I simply spend too much time in the sun.
Martin Luther King believed in non-violent protest of racial injustice. It cost him his life.
“Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”
Quote for the Day -- “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and occasional haunting memories. His blogs appear on several websites, including www.myspace.com/bret1111