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'Dream' at Odds With King Family

April 30, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gerald Posner had been unable to generate interest at Random House in yet another book about the killing of John F. Kennedy until Oliver Stone's conspiracy-churning film "JFK" reignited popular interest in who shot the president. Published in 1993, Posner's "Case Closed" went on to become a bestseller as it convinced numerous doubters that Lee Harvey Oswald really had acted alone, period.

For an encore, Posner started to poke around Memphis, Tenn., with an eye toward doing a book about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But despite the success of "Case Closed," and the critical acclaim for Posner's investigative skill, his publisher again showed little initial interest. Instead, Posner wrote "Citizen Perot," a book about the billionaire who would be president.

What then got Posner a contract last spring was the King family's outspoken belief in the innocence of James Earl Ray. First he pleaded guilty to killing the civil-rights leader, then he recanted, claiming that a shadowy "Raoul" had ordered him to buy the murder weapon and set him up as a patsy. In a stunning encounter that took place in March 1997 at a Nashville prison hospital, Ray proclaimed his innocence to King's son Dexter Scott King, who told him: "I believe you."

Posner, however, does not, and the evidence he amassed now puts him at awkward odds with the much-respected King family. Posner's "Killing the Dream," published April 4, systematically presents the case that Ray, who died May 23, was the shooter. In one of the many conspiracy theories that Posner throws up and knocks down, he meets the supposedly notorious "Raoul," a retired auto worker, and describes how the man could have had nothing to do with the assassination.

If there was a conspiracy, Posner further reports that the scheme probably was no larger than Ray's wish to collect a $50,000 bounty that was being offered by a segregationist in St. Louis to anyone who might kill King. "A crude family plot seems more likely than a sophisticated operation involving the mafia or some government agency," Posner concludes.

Nevertheless, Coretta Scott King, King's widow, extended sympathies to Ray's family when Ray died of liver failure at 70. She has called on President Clinton to order a new investigation.

"It's not a problem for me personally," Posner said of the Kings' stance. "But it's perplexing that they will not consider other evidence. . . . To have them exonerate Ray seems such a perversion of justice."

Posner added: "The Kings understood and were victims of this horrible government war--to humiliate, embarrass and discredit Martin Luther King." Indeed, Posner notes in his book that local police officers, FBI agents and military intelligence officers were conducting surveillance of King from a fire station a half-block from the motel where he was staying.

Members of the King family had not commented on his book until Matt Lauer interviewed Coretta Scott King and son Dexter earlier this month on NBC's "Today" show. Coretta King said that "to take an opposite side of a controversy can win recognition, as a writer. . . ."

The Kings have a deal with Oliver Stone for a film about the assassination--a twist that would put the director and Posner on parallel inquiries once again. Stone went public with criticism of Posner for the first time two weeks ago, contesting a favorable review of "Killing the Dream" attacking the author for not questioning authority and for "irrational logic."

*

Magazine Awards: The unlikeliest duo--Playboy Editor Hugh M. Hefner and feminist Gloria Steinem--took separate bows Wednesday as they were inducted into the Hall of Fame of the American Society of Magazine Editors.

"It takes something special to get me out of my pajamas," Hefner, who founded Playboy in 1953, said to attendees at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.

Steinem, who in 1963 worked undercover (so to speak) as a Bunny in New York's Playboy Club to research a story, was honored as a founder and editor of Ms. magazine. She emphasized that she was but a co-editor in the group. "I am hooked on magazines," Steinem added. "I love magazines because they are personal and portable. . . . They are more populist than books."

The induction of Hefner, Steinem and Byron Dobell, who has held top editing jobs at Life, Esquire and American Heritage, punctuated the annual presentation of the society's National Magazine Awards. The big winners for work published last year were Entertainment Weekly, the New Yorker and Rolling Stone, each of which claimed two awards.

EW scored for graphic design and for what the judges called "an obsessive compulsive" package in May about NBC's "Seinfeld." The New Yorker prevailed in the categories of fiction (stories by Lorrie Moore, Steven Millhauser and E. Annie Proulx) and essays / criticism (Cynthia Ozick's "Who Owns Anne Frank?"). Rolling Stone, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, won for reporting (John Colapinto's "The True Story of John / Joan") and general excellence among magazines with million-plus circulation.

Other general-excellence winners were the quarterly DoubleTake, Preservation and Outside.

* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His e-mail address is paul.colford@newsday.com. His column is published Thursdays.

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