Five Things You Might Not Know about Dr. King’s Assassination

April 4, 1968 was a horrible day in human history. The cold-blooded assassination of the man who was in some respects, America’s last hope for racial harmony, sparked days of rebellion all over the nation and left several of her biggest cities in smoking ruins. Many of those cities never recovered but rather became economically depressed as “white flight” sent the wealthy owners of downtown businesses to the suburbs where segregation found new life.

Meanwhile, predominately African American neighborhoods in big cities across America became the sites for new elevated freeways in the name of “urban renewal.” These highways provided suburbanites with easy access to the “inner city” business districts, but further weakened the black businesses that had thrived along the main streets below. New Orleans’ I-10 flyover and St. Paul, Minnesota’s I-94 are just two examples.

With neither black nor white businesses to sustain the economies of these neighborhoods, it was all too easy for the drug economy to take hold, with all of the violence, materialism, mass incarceration and family problems that came along with it. In spite of many “firsts” that have occurred since the 1960’s, today’s racial climate is far from the dream that Dr. King often shared.

It is tempting to wonder how life would be if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had not been murdered. If his commitment to justice and racial harmony had been pursued to a triumphant conclusion, would #BlackLivesMatter be necessary? We cannot go back to undo the events of the past, but we can get a clearer view. So here are a few things about this tragic day that you may not have known.

1. Dr. King was killed a year to the day after he openly condemned the Vietnam War. 

When outspoken prizefighter Muhammad Ali challenged America’s Vietnam-related military draft in 1967, the consequences were swift and painful, including the loss of his championship title and his source of providing for his family’s needs. But did you know that just a few weeks before Ali refused his army induction, Dr. King came out with strong words of condemnation for the same war?

At the historic Riverside Baptist Church in New York City, Dr. King declared:

“A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.”

He went on to call America’s government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” One year later, he was dead.

2. King’s agenda had grown beyond racial harmony to address poverty among all races.

It is common knowledge that Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Lorraine Motel. Many may even be aware that he was in town to support a labor strike by the city’s black sanitation workers. But what you may not know is that Dr. King’s focus had enlarged significantly in the last twelve months of his life.

As stated in the Riverside church address, Dr. King had begun to see that poverty and low economic opportunity were not just civil rights issues affecting one race, but human rights issue affecting Americans of all races. The Poor People’s Campaign was announced in December 1967, and by February 1968, King had put a list of demands to the government including $30 million in antipoverty funding. He was organizing a major march for May 1968 which would draw thousands to Washington, DC, where they were to build a tent city to dramatically show the plight of America’s poor people for the world to see.

After Dr. King’s death, the march went on, but without his charisma and vision, the campaign never took off.

3. Government leaders were determined to prevent “the rise of a messiah.”

This skeleton in Uncle Sam’s closet comes courtesy of the FBI, it’s long-time leader J. Edgar Hoover and an investigation known as the Church Commission.

After Dr. King, the Kennedys and Malcolm X were assassinated over a three-year period, the FBI, state and local law enforcement across America organized to take down black liberation and African consciousness groups in America and all over the world. One of the biggest domestic programs was the FBI’s CointelPro or “CounterIntelligence Program.”

In the 1970’s, Congressman Frank Church chaired a committee to investigate illegal intelligence activities (spying) by the CIA, NSA and FBI.  They uncovered fourteen reports’ worth of information about secret operations against foreign and American persons, including a COINTELPRO memo dated one month to the day before Dr. King was murdered. In the text, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover lists as a “long-range directive” of the COINTELPRO:

Prevent the RISE OF A “MESSIAH” who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement. Malcolm X might have been such a “messiah;” he is the martyr of the movement today. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammed all aspire to this position. Elijah Muhammed is less of a threat because of his age. King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed “obedience” to “white, liberal doctrines” (nonviolence) and embrace black nationalism. Carmichael has the necessary charisma to be a real threat in this way.

Remember: Dr. King died because America was a hardcore racist, segregationist nation just 50 years ago. Unapologetically. With sanction and protection from the legally elected government. Black people have been America’s most hated minority ever since the transatlantic slave trade and all those Africans who were imported as free labor.

4. The King family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the USA – and won. Or did they?

Acouple of years ago, a meme began to circulate that the American government had lost a court case which proved they were guilty of killing Dr. King. Now the American government has been implicated in so much dirt in the 1960’s, from the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah to the murder of Patrice Lumumba, so I’m definitely not calling the government innocent.

But does this particular rumor hold up to the principle of truth? An article published just after the trial states0:

“On December 8 a jury in Memphis, Tennessee returned a verdict that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was the victim of an assassination conspiracy and did not die at the hands of a lone gunman.

The verdict followed a three-week trial of a wrongful death lawsuit which the King family filed last year against former Memphis cafe owner Loyd Jowers. According to the suit, Jowers was part of a plot to murder the civil rights leader. King was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.”

The court awarded the King family $100. And what about the government’s involvement? Near the end of the court transcript, the judge says to the jury, “others, including governmental agencies, were parties to this conspiracy as alleged by the defendant? Your answer to that one is also yes.”

Make what you will of that phrase. The Justice Department has put together an extensive list of the “conspiracy allegations” and its rebuttals, if you care to do the research.  The late community scholar and lecturer Steve Cokely has added another dimension to the question of who actually killed Dr. King.

5. Nina Simone recorded a song to memorialize his loss.
Nina Simone has been on everyone’s minds lately with the controversy over Zoe Saldana’s portrayal being played out in the news and on social media. Much of the disagreement is rooted in Simone’s deep ties to civil rights and the struggle for racial equality. Just a few days after Dr. King was killed, she sang the question that the whole world was asking: Why (The King of Love is Dead).

As Nina Simone states in the video, this heartbreaking song was written by her bass player, Gene Taylor, one day after the news of Dr. King’s assassination spread. They debuted the song at the Westbury Music Fair in New York on April 9. In an interview aired on PBS, Simone reminisced on the Civil Rights era, saying: “It was bigotry that sealed his fate.”


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