Session 5: Crucifixion / Assassination

From “The Last Week of Jesus Christ and the Last Year of Martin Luther King” Bible Study Series


Bible passage: John 19
King passage: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”
Other references: excerpt from MLK Assassination Trial Transcript

Discussion Questions

1. Is there a connection between the death of Jesus and the death of King?
2. According to the Gospel of John, what role does the Roman Empire play in the crucifixion of Jesus? According to the Tennessee District Court, what role does the U.S. government play in the assassination of King? How does this manifest?
3. Does crucifixion connect to what we see in poor rural and urban communities across the U.S. and the globe? Why or why not?

John 19: 1-37 (NIV)

Jesus Sentenced to Death
1 Then Pilate had Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip. 2 The soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they put a purple robe on him. 3 “Hail! King of the Jews!” they mocked, as they slapped him across the face.
4 Pilate went outside again and said to the people, “I am going to bring him out to you now, but understand clearly that I find him not guilty.” 5 Then Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said, “Look, here is the man!”
6 When they saw him, the leading priests and Temple guards began shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
“Take him yourselves and crucify him,” Pilate said. “I find him not guilty.”
7 The Jewish leaders replied, “By our law he ought to die because he called himself the Son of God.”
8 When Pilate heard this, he was more frightened than ever. 9 He took Jesus back into the headquarters again and asked him, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer. 10 “Why don’t you talk to me?” Pilate demanded. “Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you or crucify you?”
11 Then Jesus said, “You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above. So the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.”
12 Then Pilate tried to release him, but the Jewish leaders shouted, “If you release this man, you are no ‘friend of Caesar.’ Anyone who declares himself a king is a rebel against Caesar.”
13 When they said this, Pilate brought Jesus out to them again. Then Pilate sat down on the judgment seat on the platform that is called the Stone Pavement (in Hebrew, Gabbatha). 14 It was now about noon on the day of preparation for the Passover. And Pilate said to the people, “Look, here is your king!”
15 “Away with him,” they yelled. “Away with him! Crucify him!”
“What? Crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the leading priests shouted back.
16 Then Pilate turned Jesus over to them to be crucified.

The Crucifixion
So they took Jesus away. 17 Carrying the cross by himself, he went to the place called Place of the Skull (in Hebrew, Golgotha). 18 There they nailed him to the cross. Two others were crucified with him, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 19 And Pilate posted a sign over him that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20The place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, so that many people could read it.
21 Then the leading priests objected and said to Pilate, “Change it from ‘The King of the Jews’ to ‘He said, I am King of the Jews.’”
22 Pilate replied, “No, what I have written, I have written.”
23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they divided his clothes among the four of them. They also took his robe, but it was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. 24 So they said, “Rather than tearing it apart, let’s throw dice for it.” This fulfilled the Scripture that says, “They divided my garments among themselves and threw dice for my clothing.” So that is what they did.
25 Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.” 27 And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from then on this disciple took her into his home.

The Death of Jesus
28 Jesus knew that his mission was now finished, and to fulfill Scripture he said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of sour wine was sitting there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips. 30 When Jesus had tasted it, he said, “It is finished!” Then he bowed his head and released his spirit.
31 It was the day of preparation, and the Jewish leaders didn’t want the bodies hanging there the next day, which was the Sabbath (and a very special Sabbath, because it was the Passover). So they asked Pilate to hasten their deaths by ordering that their legs be broken. Then their bodies could be taken down. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus. 33 But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they didn’t break his legs. 34 One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. 35 (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also can believe.) 36 These things happened in fulfillment of the Scriptures that say, “Not one of his bones will be broken,” 37 and “They will look on the one they pierced.”

From Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

“Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” …Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’ Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding. Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee—the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’

…Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.

…Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be—and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory. …It’s all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

…Now, it doesn’t matter, now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, ‘We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.’ And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And 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 so 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!!”

From the MLK Assassination Trial Transcript, “Closing Statement” by William F. Pepper

“I remember vividly, I was a journalist in Vietnam, when I came back he asked to meet with me, and when I opened my files to [King], which were devastating in terms of the effects upon the civilian population of that country, he unashamedly wept. I knew at that point really that the die was cast. This was in February of 1967. He was definitely going to oppose that war with every strength, every fiber in his body. And he did so. He opposed it. And from the date of the Riverside speech [“Beyond Vietnam”] to the date he was killed, he never wavered in that opposition. Now, what does that mean? Is he an enemy of the State? The State regarded him as an enemy because he opposed it. But what does it really mean, his opposition? I put it to you that his opposition to that war had little to do with ideology, with capitalism, with democracy. It had to do with money. It had to do with huge amounts of money that that war was generating to large multinational corporations that were based in the United States, corporations that were based in the United States.

When Martin King opposed the war, when he rallied people to oppose the war, he was threatening the bottom lines of some of the largest defense contractors in this country. This was about money. When he threatened to bring that war to a close through massive popular opposition, he was threatening the bottom lines of some of the largest construction companies, one of which was in the State of Texas, that patronized the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson and had the major construction contracts at Cam Ran Bay in Vietnam. This is what Martin King was challenging. He was challenging the weapons industry, the hardware, the armament industries, that all would lose as a result of the end of the war. …Now, he begins to talk about a redistribution of wealth, in this the wealthiest country in the world that had such a large group of poor people, of people living then and now, by the way, in poverty. That problem had to be addressed. And it wasn’t a black-and-white problem. This was a problem that dealt with Hispanics, and it dealt with poor whites as well. That is what he was taking on. That’s what he was challenging.

The powers in this land believed he would not be successful. Why did they believe that? They believed that because they knew that the decision-making processes in the United States had by that point in time, and today it is much worse in my view, but by that point in time had so consolidated power that they were the representatives, the foot soldiers, of the economic—the very economic interests who were going to suffer as a result of these times of changes. So the very powerful lobbying forces that put their people in the halls of Congress and indeed in the White House itself and controlled them, paid and bought them and controlled them, were certainly not going to agree to the type of social legislation that Martin King and his mass of humanity were going to require.

…Now we move to the local conspiracy that related to the death of Martin Luther King. You’ve heard evidence of a very reputable forty-year-in-business store owner sit up there and tell you that he always bought—every Thursday he went to Frank Liberto’s warehouse, that was his last stop before he went back to Somerville, and on that Thursday, April 4, he heard the owner of that place take the telephone and scream into it, ‘Shoot the son-of-a-bitch when he comes on the balcony,’ amongst other things. That is the first indication of the involvement of a Mr. Frank Liberto, which information was given to the police and the FBI and forgotten about.

…All of these things, all of these events, I submit to you profoundly are strong evidence of the existence of a conspiracy just at the local level, not even mentioning the fact that the defendant has also indicated that planning sessions took place in his grill prior to the assassination. So I think it is important to see that total picture of evidence you have. There should be no doubt that all of these things are indicative overwhelmingly of conspiracy. Now, are we conspiracy buffs because we find all of this evidence insurmountable? I think not. But you have heard it. The masses of Americans have not. And the media has never put it to them and I submit to you probably never will. That’s why your presence is so important.

…Then we move directly into the government of the United States, their agents themselves. We’ve learned that the 111th Military Intelligence Group based at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia, were here. They were in Memphis. They had Martin King under surveillance. That was open- quote, open surveillance, eye-to-eye surveillance. They had him under surveillance. Eli Arkin of the Memphis Police Department Intelligence Bureau, Intelligence Division, said they were in his office. He has admitted they were in his office. They were here.

…You have got to understand the monumental importance of your decision. You are going to—they are going to forget everything I said, everything defense counsel has said, everything the witnesses have said. They are going to remember one thing, the ruling of this jury, the verdict of this jury because you have heard evidence that has never before been put on in a court of law. Some of it would have been put on in Mr. Ray’s trial, if he had ever been granted a trial. He wasn’t. It wasn’t heard. Judge Brown was on the verge of granting that trial, on the eve, in our view, so close to granting that trial, and then he was removed by the Court of Appeals in this state from the case, summarily removed. Without any argument, any oral argument, they made that decision. So Mr. Ray never had the trial. He was in his dying months when he might have gotten that trial. The Court of Appeals finished that possibility.

Only you have heard this. The people in the United States of America have not heard this. The masses of people in this country or the world have not heard this. They’ve heard snippets, they’ve heard edited clips on various documentaries and programs, but no one has heard the detailed evidence that you have here. That is why your decision at this point in time is the most significant decision that will have been taken in thirty-one years in terms of this case.

Please don’t underestimate the importance of it. In our view, what has happened in this case, the injustice that has happened in this case, and it may be symptomatic of other cases, we don’t know—we haven’t gotten into that, we’ve just focused on this case—but what has happened here in our view is representative of the failure that symbolizes to me the failure of representative democracy in this country.
Isn’t it amazing that one could say that over a simple murder case. But when you look at the wealth of evidence that has come forward and you understand how this case has been conducted and you understand how it has been covered up, and when you see how unresponsive elected officials and government has been and how complicit they have been, you can come to no other choice.

Governmental agencies caused Martin Luther King to be assassinated. They used other foot soldiers. They caused this whole thing to happen. And they then proceeded with the powerful means at their disposal to cover this case up. This is a conspiracy that involved—and that’s a nasty word. People insult people in this country who use the word ‘conspiracy.’ Nowhere else in the world, as Bill Schaap told you, is it viewed that way. In Italy and France conspiracy is taken for granted because they have lived with it so much longer. Remember that there were thirty-nine daggers going into Caesar.

You know, these things do not happen as a rule without the involvement of other people and in this case, this type of murder, without the involvement of seriously prominent individuals in government. So it is in my view a failure of democracy and this Republic that it has not been able to bring this forward.

What we’re asking you to do at this point in time is send a message. We’re asking you to send a message, not just right a wrong. That’s important, that you right a wrong and that you allow justice to prevail once and for all. Let it prevail. Let justice and truth prevail, else the heavens fall. No matter what, let it prevail. Let it come forward. We’re asking you to let that happen.

But in addition to that, we’re asking you to send a message, send a message to all of those in power, all of those who manipulate justice in this country that you cannot get away with this. Or if you can get away with it, you can only get away with it for so long. Ultimately truth-crushed earth will rise again, and it has risen in this courtroom, ladies and gentlemen. Send that message. You, you twelve, represent the American people. You are their representatives with respect to justice in this case. They cannot be here. The media will keep the truth from them forever. You represent the people of this land. You must speak for them.

In all of my years I’ve had confidence in one institution anywhere in the Anglo-American world, and it is a jury. It is twelve people independently hearing evidence and ruling. That’s you. You have this duty to yourselves, this obligation to your fellow citizens, and you have an opportunity to act in a most significant way that perhaps you can ever imagine, because your verdict of conspiracy in this case, your verdict of liability for the defendant and his other co-conspirators, means history is rewritten, means textbooks have to be rewritten, means the actual result of this case and the truth of this case now must come forward formally.

This message also will be sent to the Attorney General of the United States, whose team are investigating in a limited way, they say, this case. But you have heard much more, so that is why this message is so important. Please send it. On behalf of the family of Martin Luther King, Jr., on behalf of the people of the United States, I ask you to find for the plaintiff and find that conspiracy existed and that those conspirators involved not only the defendant here but we’re dealing in conspiracy with agents of the City of Memphis and the governments of the State of Tennessee and the United States of America. We ask you to find that conspiracy existed and once and for all give this plaintiff family justice and let’s cleanse this city and this nation of the ignorance that has pervaded this case for so long. Let the truth reign in this courtroom once and for all. Thank you very much.”

PDF of the entire series