This year will mark the 56th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the aftermath of his assassination, investigations were conducted in respect to who was behind it. Was the Civil Rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate the victim of a lone gunman, in the person of James Earl Ray, or was he the target of a much broader conspiracy?
An investigation was conducted by the U.S. Congress surrounding his death, along with that of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Despite official findings that James Earl Ray was solely responsible for the crime there were some who had expressed doubts in that respect. But, this writer is of the opinion that though it is always prudent to ascertain who the perpetrators of any crime might be, with a view towards prosecution, the question posed by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy — Dr. King’s friend and comrade in arms in the Civil Rights struggle — as to “what” and not as to “who” killed Dr. King was quite intriguing.
The Rev. Abernathy had felt, no doubt, that “what” was far more poignant than “who”, and, perhaps, he was on to something. His question leaned more towards a systemic problem as a probable cause as opposed to the act of a misguided individual or one that was the culmination of a well planned and executed conspiracy. Therefore, what killed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on that fateful day of April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee?
There could be more than one reason for his death, but let us consider that which was the prima facie or circumstantial evidence connected to the crime. This writer first posits the love of the gun, the broad access to the gun, and the excessive use of the gun, by all and sundry in the country, and the failure of the U.S. Government to put reasonable, practical and effective controls on access to the gun for your consideration. One could be quick to blame white racism in that tragic affair, and that would be a rational deduction, given who the victim was and also the cause for which he fought.
The night before he died, in his now famous “Mountaintop” speech, he spoke about threats that were issued on his life from some of his “sick white brothers”. White racism, therefore, cannot be discounted. However, more on that issue later.
But, a brief survey of the use of the gun in the slaying of public figures during that time is worth examining.
On June 12, 1963, Mr. Medgar Evers, a Civil Rights leader — a Black man — was murdered by way of a gun used by a member of the infamous Ku Klux Klan, at his home in Jackson, Mississippi. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy — a white man — was felled by an assassin’s bullet while traveling in a motorcade in the city of Dallas, Texas. Two other persons were wounded in the process. On February 21, 1965, Muslim leader, Mr. Malcolm X — a Black man — was shot multiple times by members associated with Mr. Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, a religious organization that Mr. X once belonged to. He was killed in the Audubon Ballroom, in Manhattan, New York, as he gave a speech.
On June 6, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of the slain president — a white man — was cut down after giving a political speech in a hotel. He was the front runner in the Democratic National Congress presidential primary. Five other individuals were wounded in the attack.
Going beyond the 1960s, just a little, there are a few notable cases worth mentioning. On May 15, 1972, Mr. George Wallace, a former four-term, white racist, segregationist Governor of the State of Alabama, was shot four times by Arthur Bremer — a white man — while campaigning at the Laurel Shopping Center in Laurel, Maryland, at a time when he was receiving high ratings in national opinion polls with respect to running for the presidency. He survived the attempt on his life, but became permanently paralyzed as a result, from the waist down. It was said that Bremer committed the crime in an attempt to be famous.
On June 30, 1974, Mrs. Alberta Williams King, the mother of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — a Black woman — was shot and killed by Marcus Chenault, a 21-year-old man from Ohio who claimed that, “All Christians are my enemies”, as she played the organ during Sunday services at her church in Atlanta, Georgia. She died at the age of 70.
On March 30, 1981, an attempt was made on the life of President Ronald Reagan — a white man — wounding him, a police officer, and a Secret Service agent. It resulted in the death of his White House Press Secretary Mr. James Brady. John Hinckley, Jr. — a white man — who committed the crime was found not guilty by reason of insanity and remained under institutional psychiatric care for over three decades. Public outcry over the verdict led state legislatures and Congress to narrow their respective insanity legal defences.
And so, the American gun culture cannot be discounted in answer to the question as to what killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And yet, this suspect has been allowed to roam the country free and it continues to maim and to kill people of all ages, genders, races and cultures unchecked. There is little doubt that the Federal and State governments are culpable where this violent and bloody plague is concerned. A lack of will for implementing background checks because of greed and political corruption has been longstanding.
The second consideration for his death is the wanton disregard in America for people’s free speech. Dr. King was quoted as saying, perhaps around the time of the assassination of Mr. Malcolm X, that: “I think we have got to learn to disagree without being violently disagreeable…” In fact, Dr. King not only sought to avail himself of his right to free speech as a citizen under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but also of the following as quoted from that amendment: “Congress shall make no law…. abridging of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It is not only highly likely that Dr. King was assassinated for exercising his First Amendment rights, but that it was likely to have been the case with respect to all of the individuals mentioned in this piece as notable victims of gun violence, including the late Governor Wallace of Alabama. But, there was one issue which went beyond Civil Rights that stirred the anger of some within the power structure.
Having read a volume of collected writings and speeches by Dr. King a few months ago, I was alarmed at the boldness he exhibited while criticizing the U.S. Government and its involvement in the war in Vietnam. I had been made aware, years before seeing what I read, why some had feared for his life on that matter. His concerns were valid, but, given the context of the times, which I do not believe was all that different from our current factious political climate, I would not likely have said anything on the war out of fear for my life, were I in his place.
I found it interesting, after having made that discovery, that some have opined on the Internet, so close to the national holiday, given in his honour, that his position on the war largely resulted in his death. The lives of people have been threatened, as have been their families and their livelihoods, for example, for exercising their First Amendment rights with respect to the Israel-Hamas conflict which now rages in the Middle East. Some have been murdered because of their stances on abortion, and on their religious and LGBTQ rights. This harkens back to the time of the tumult surrounding the war in Vietnam.
Mr. Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, introduced an acerbic culture of demonizing one’s political opponents who do not share one’s party’s political agenda. Expressions such as “Give and take”, “Reaching across the aisle”, “Bi-partisanship” and “Compromise” are no longer seen as hallmarks of the democratic process, but as anathemas — as signs of weakness and of capitulating to one’s enemies. This was evident with members of Congress who were aligned with the Tea Party movement and now, also, with the newest iteration of petulant behaviour as seen in the so-called Maga Republicans in the current Congress.
But such vociferous, violent and virulent attacks on the reputations and the lives of others in the public service predated the Machiavellian mindset and methodology used to win and to retain political power that was inspired by Mr. Gingrich. And so, this chronic intolerance on the part of the American people with respect to those who hold views which are different from their own also has to be seen as a prime suspect in the cause of Dr. King’s death, as well as lax gun laws.
All that having been said, we come back to the third suspect in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that was mentioned earlier — that being white racism. On the night before he was killed he spoke of having seen the promised land from a mountaintop experience. But there has been so much in the news over the years into the present to suggest that we are not anywhere near to the promised land. Racial hatred has reached an inflection point, and the threat to the freedom of people of colour seems inextricably tied up with the survival of the American republic. The second civil war is no longer approaching as some have misguidedly contended — this writer included — but it is now upon us.
The vials of torrid hatred have been poured out and the minions of reckless selfishness and anarchy, which greedily drank of its poison, are now on the move in our government, in our courtrooms, in our churches, in our schools, in our places of work and where we play. This new civil war reeks of violence — yes — with threats to life, to limb and to property. But it is, perhaps, more so, an ideological war of propaganda which superintends as well as stokes the fires of our discontent and division.
White racist nationalism is the country’s greatest domestic threat, according to the FBI. The missing “bloody glove” of that crime of April 4, 1968 has been found in this election year of 2024.
And so, if there was a conspiracy behind the trigger man in the Rev. Dr. King’s death — then the gun — with its paramours of gun violence and intimidation; then political intolerance — with its cohorts of character assassination and the dehumanization of political rivals; and then threadbare, rabid racism — with its racist ideology, with its racist agendas, with its racist practices, and with its racist connections, in all quadrants and levels of American society, would be part and parcel of the crime. Their fingerprints and their DNAs were all over the crime scene.
And so, what killed Dr. King? It was fear and a stubborn resistance to change. What killed Dr. King? It was a failure to understand and to appreciate the true meaning of democracy. What killed Dr. King? It was not recognizing racial and cultural diversity within the inclusive and equalizing umbrella of humanity. What killed Dr. King? It was, as it is today, an inoculation against truth. James Earl Ray was but a symptom of a festering boil — one which has developed gangrene from an old wound inflicted by the late Southern Confederacy upon America.
What killed Dr. King? In a word — America.