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The American history of assassinations in the 1960’s left an indelible mark in the minds of many people. These were defining moments which went into record as having been orchestrated by one gun murder after the other (The WHITE HOUSE, N.d.). This period witnessed the grisly and violent murder of two U.S presidents namely John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy who were both brothers, and also the assassination of an American Human Rights Activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In this paper, I seek to discuss in detail these three momentous events and how they were connected to each other politically, socially, and culturally.
To begin with, the assassination of John F. Kennedy On 2nd November 1963 from an assassin’s bullet right in his motorcade which was moving through Dallas in Texas was a tragic occurrence in American history. He had not even completed three years in office when this event happened. Surprisingly, Kennedy was the youngest president ever elected by that time and also encountered his death at the youngest age (The WHITE HOUSE, N.d.). His descent was Irish, born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on 29th May 1917. He was a graduate of Harvard and served in the navy from 1940.
The gun man hit him on the head and throat when three shots were fired at his open topped car. John Connally, who was the Texas Governor by that time, also sustained serious injuries at the back although he was not the main target. Mr. Kennedy’s car was driven at high speed to parklands hospital and admitted while still alive but passed away barely after half an hour (BBC News, November 22 1963).
Shortly after the shooting, a policeman was shot dead and Lee Harvey Oswald was put under arrest having being suspected of murder and later charged with President Kennedy’s assassination (BBC News, November 22 1963). The suspect was not put to trial at all because he was shot dead in less than three days by a club owner identified as Jack Ruby. An inquiry into President Kennedy’s death was later commissioned through the warren Report which concluded that Kennedy had been killed “by shots fired by Mr. Oswald from the School Book Depository Building” (BBC News, November 22 1963). However, the Warren Investigation Report brought a lot of controversy and dispute leading to the emergence of a range of theories. For instance, some argued that “it was an elaborately staged suicide” (BBC News, November 22 1963). While others believed the driver was the actual murderer. There was so much sorrow in the nation following his death.
Interestingly, everyone was affected by this incident: both who supported his policies and those who opposed them. Kennedy was a young energetic man at forty three with able leadership ability and everyone knew this. His assassination left a big gap and made the nation “feel defenseless” (Rich, 2009). Socially, there was an emotional breakdown as the country felt weak and quite unable to move forward. The dilemma surrounding his death in the sense that the assassin could not be traced left an equally bad impression on the Government’s inability to apprehend similar culprits even in future.
Almost everything came to a halt in America for the first four days. The shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald worsened the situation. People wanted answers and reassurance while they got none. The four days brought a temporary political oneness; there was unity from the entire political divide. In fact, “John F. Kennedy transcended from being merely an American president to the more mythical position of King of Camelot” (Rich, 2009).
Even at this point, Americans didn’t want to believe the possibility of “a conspiracy to assassinate a president”. Politically, presidential assassinations were commonplace in Third World countries, not in the developed world like America. Therefore, the Warren Commission which stated that “Oswald acted alone” was taken as gospel truth (Rich, 2009).
Witnesses in President Kennedy’s assassination gave a completely different recount of his murder contrary to Warren Commission Report. For example, majority of the witnesses confirmed that “shots were fired from the Grassy Knoll not the Texas School Book Depository” (The John F. Kennedy Assassination Homepage, N.d.). This left a cloud of doubt on whether the Warren Report was flawed or there was conspiracy. Similar to Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, a gunman was involved.
Robert Francis Kennedy who was born on 20th November 1925 and assassinated on 5th June 1968 was among the most influential American politicians of his time. He was a junior brother to John F Kennedy who was assassinated way back in 1963. While President John F Kennedy was still in office, Robert Kennedy was among his senior advisors.
On 5th June 1968 at around mid day, Senator Robert F. Kennedy “was making his way from the ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, to give a press conference…” This was after he won the primary elections in California. As he was finding his way to the conference table, “a Palestinian Arab, Sirhan Sirhan, stepped forward and fired a 22 revolver at the Senator”. Five other people were seriously injured in the shoot out although Robert Kennedy suffered extreme gun shot wound. The assassin was immediately overwhelmed and arrested at the scene of the incidence “charged and convicted of first degree murder”. He was supposed to be executed, however, the Supreme Court of the United States turned down the death sentence on the basis of the country’s constitution. Sirham was then incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison in California. Under the Californian law, he was to be released in 1984 although this did not happen (The Crime. 1998). Robert F Kennedy’s assassination appeared to be political because it happened immediately after he won the California primaries. Moreover, the manner in which the United States of America Supreme Court diverted the death sentence due for Sirham left tangible doubts on its ruling. Similar to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the cultural aspect of using gun shooting in assassinating top country executives was evident. Whether Sirham did this out of personal conviction or as “part of a conspiracy” was not immediately established. The weapon used, although generally known to be a gun, could not be fully described by the authorities. Some witnesses claimed that the “assassin had used a six-shot revolver; others said that more than six shots had been fired” (Clark, 2010). There were possibilities that multiple assassins and more than one gun were involved in the shooting. Just like the murder of John F. Kennedy, there were serious doubts coupled with lack of clarity on the report findings of the assassination.
Thomas Reddin, who was by that time the Chief Police officer in Los Angeles, reported several hours later about the pistol traces. Surprisingly the gun man had not been identified and was still at large. Socially, the United States historic assassination crimes were all marred by violence through violent shooting by gun men. This molded into people’s mind a society marred with violence and it created as a sense of insecurity. The outside world would judge the United States as “some sort of violent society” (Clark, 2010). Presumably, hatred prevailed and a mindset of war was like a solid cultural aspect deep within the American society. Several leaders drawn from both the clergy and government condemned this form of societal violence which was becoming deeply rooted and the order of the day. As a precaution to end this form of violence, there were calls from every quarter for the “establishment of a commission to investigate the causes of violence in society” (Clark, 2010). The commission would work hand in hand with both the president and the Congress. Religious, academic, and political leaders will form the commission.
To confirm that these were political assassinations, President Johnson gave a directive that all victorious candidates for national positions would be provided with silent service protection rather than for those who held the positions alone (Clark, 2010). The motive of Robert F. Kennedy shooting was also explained by the fact that he supported Israel in the six-day War of 1967 against Palestine. Sirham, the assassin, had claimed that he did for the sake of his country. There were serious abnormalities in the findings of Robert F. Kennedy murder. For example, the “results of the 1968 test firing of Sirhan’s gun were missing” (Bobby-kennedy.com. N.d.).
The question on how and why the results disappeared could not be answered. Worse still, the gun that was used for ballistics and comparison purposes was surprisingly discarded. A claim that more than 90 per cent of the witness testimony (audio taped) got destroyed was highly questionable. Only 301 interviews out of the 3470 carried out by LAPD got preserved. There are still persistent beliefs that Robert Kennedy’s death may have been a conspiracy and that more than one person may have been involved (Lubieniecki, N.d.). The same year in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. encountered his death after leading a protest match by sanitation workers.
He was born on 15th January 1929. His original name was Michael Luther King, Jr. but his name was later changed to Martin. His father was a long time serving pastor at a church in Atlanta. He “acted as a co-pastor” to his father. Martin Luther received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1948 from Morehouse College (The Nobel Foundation, 2010).
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On 4th April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was “fatally shot while standing on the balcony outside his second-story room at the Motel Lorraine in Memphis, Tennessee” (Black History, N.d.). He was a civil rights leader and an activist by this time. He was in Memphis to rally behind sanitation workers who had gone on strike demanding better working conditions. As he was headed to dinner, he was hit by a bullet right into the jaw which led to serious spinal cord damage. He was immediately rushed to the Memphis Hospital but was declared dead upon his arrival. Martin Luther King Jr. was thirty nine years at the time of his assassination. But who was the assassin and why did he choose to gun down this Human Rights Activist?
Some months before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King was very vocal on the subject of economic imbalance in America. He organized a peaceful demonstration involving several races entitled “Poor People’s March” in Washington. He did this to sensitize the government and world over about the ills of inequality in terms of economic power whereby some were too rich while others extremely poor. In March 1968, he traveled to Memphis with an aim of supporting sanitation workers of African-American decent who were treated poorly. The strike unfortunately became violent and led to the demise of a teenager of African-American descent. This was tragic and quite unexpected. However, Martin Luther did not relent and he promised to plan and lead another protest the following (The Nobel Foundation, 2010).
As he vowed earlier, Martin Luther King returned to Memphis in early April gave a very touching sermon defining his purpose for the less fortunate in the society and the hope of a promised land. In his speech, he talked of God’s will in his mission and that he longed for a better humanity. These were moving words which were viewed as a delicate way of inciting the sanitation workers. Some days after his sermon, Martin Luther King Jr. was tragically shot dead by a sniper. The news about his death was met with a rude shock in cities across United States and riots ensued thereafter. The government tried to contain the violent riots by deploying the National Guard Troops in Memphis and Washington. James Earl Ray was chief suspect murder of Martin Luther King Jr. He had earlier escaped from prison in 1967 where he was jailed for holdup.
The FBI launched a massive manhunt for James Ray in May 1968 but he had escaped to Canada using a fake passport. He was however arrested on 8th June the same year by Scotland Yard Investigators in London. He was prosecuted in a Memphis Court in March 1969 and pleaded guilty of assassinating the King. Conversely, after some few days Ray claimed that he was innocent and was hugely supported by Martin King’s family. They claimed that the assassination was a plot of the United States government. The King experienced a lot of turbulence by the FBI before he eventually died. The U.S military intelligence also kept close vigil of the king after he openly refuted the Vietnam War of 1967 (Black History. N.d). Also, his call for significant economic changes in 1968 may have been a recipe for his eventual death having created enmity with opponents to his ideas. The aforementioned three assassinations created a historical phenomenon of political conspiracy to their deaths. Although investigations were launched soon after their murders, a lot was left to be desired on the outcome of the reports and so a culture of mistrust and suspicion between the political class and ordinary American citizens was planted.
Like the previous assassinations, the government of the day gave conflicting, sometimes unclear report findings. Social injustice seemed to penetrate deeper and the worst affected were the tall standing leaders who were out to push for reforms, whether political, social or economical.
The culture of a possible government hand in all these murders is clearly evident. In all the three murders discussed above, commissions of inquiry that were ever set up to carry out investigations had their reports either flawed, missing, contradicting or full of other abnormalities.
BBC News. 1963. Kennedy shot dead in Dallas. Web.
Black History. N.d. Martin Luther King: The Assassination. 2010. Web.
Bobby-kennedy.com. N.d. Is Everyone Alright? The Assassination. 2010. Web.
Clark A. Kevin. 2010. Robert F. Kennedy Assassination. Web.
Lubieniecki A. Karen. N.d. Teaching American History. 2010. Web.
Rich Candace. 2009. Kennedy Assassination. Web.
The Crime. 1998. The RFK Assassination. Web.
The John F. Kennedy Assassination Homepage. N.d. The Assassination: An Overview. 2010. Web.
The Nobel Foundation. 2010. Martin Luther King Jr. Biography. Web.
The WHITE HOUSE. N.d. Our Presidents. 2010. Web.