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Jack Kershaw, one of the most iconic American white segregationists of the 20th century and the lawyer who represented James Earl Ray following his conviction for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has died in Nashville at the age of 96.
He died on Sept. 7, but his death was not made public until Sept. 17, after funeral services were held.
Kershaw was a co-founder and board member of the League of the South (LOS), formed in 1994 by a group of 40 intellectuals. The LOS espoused intensely racist views, including support for a second Southern secession, defense of slavery and opposition to interracial marriage to preserve the “integrity” of black and white people. The Southern Poverty Law Center listed the League of the South as a hate group in 2000.
One of Kershaw’s most enduring quotes was uttered in 1998: “Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery,” he told a reporter. “Where in the world are the Negroes better off than today in America?”
Kershaw also was a sculptor, responsible for the 25-foot statute of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. It stands in a privately owned Confederate flag park along Interstate 65 just north of Brentwood, Tenn. The statue was unveiled in July 1998 when Kershaw was 84 years old. Kershaw also created a similarly massive statue of Joan of Arc.
On the advice of another attorney, James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the fatal shooting of Dr. King on April 4, 1968. With the plea, Ray avoided the death penalty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. But shortly thereafter, Ray recanted his confession and instead spun a conspiracy tale involving a man identified only as Raoul. Kershaw, one of several lawyers who represented Ray after the conviction, tried unsuccessfully to have CIA files on King’s death declassified, according to Gary Revel, an associate of Kershaw during his years working on Ray’s behalf. In 1977, represented by Kershaw, Ray told his story to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Assassinations. Ballistics tests on the rifle Ray allegedly used proved inconclusive.
In a video posted on YouTube, Kershaw, in response to an interviewer’s question, “Did [Ray] kill King?,” replies cryptically, “He’s been misjudged, and had a warped career in our trial courts.”
Kershaw continued to advance the conspiracy theory. But, according to the New York Times, he and Ray had a falling out after Kershaw persuaded Ray to do an interview with Playboy magazine. Ray agreed to a lie-detector test, which indicated he was lying when he said he was not King’s killer and that he was telling the truth when he denied he was part of a conspiracy.
Ray died in prison in 1998.
According to Tennessean.com, Kershaw had completed, but not published, a book on his involvement with James Earl Ray. “Because of the sensitive nature of its contents, the book is being kept at a secure location away from his home,” the newspaper website reported.
Kershaw was born in Missouri on Oct. 12, 1913. He later attended Vanderbilt University, majoring in geology, history and art. According to Tennessean.com, Kershaw became associated with a group of intellectuals called the Fugitive Poets of Vanderbilt, which included other writers who went on to chronicle a particularly sympathetic view of Southern history. In the late 1930s, he played quarterback with Nashville’s professional football team, which folded with the onset of World War II.
In addition to founding the League of the South (LOS) and remaining on its board as late as 2009, Kershaw also was a past chairman of the League of the South Cultural and Educational Foundation. He was once active in the Nashville chapter of the segregationist White Citizens Council, the forebear of the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens. Kershaw also was a member of the notoriously segregationist Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government. Fellow LOS co-founder and vituperative, racist neo-Confederate Michael Hill serves on the board of the Mary Noel Kershaw Foundation, named after Kershaw’s late wife.