Why Martin Luther King, Jr. had to die

It’s worth remembering, the day after most of the nation recalled, and many celebrated, the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., that although his courageous advocacy led to changes in the laws of this great nation, his moral message did not touch many.

Yesterday, on Martin Luther King Day, Trump’s administration, in one of its final official acts (outside of executing a record-shattering number of federal prisoners), put out a 41 page book report called The 1776 Report. Written as a refutation to the “liberal” narrative (see the NY Times 1619 Project, for example) that we long tolerated a brutal and dehumanizing form of race-based slavery and have a lot of racial healing to do in this deeply racist nation, the 1776 Report purportedly refutes the idea that there is any institutional racism in this great and idealistic nation. Written in the incomparable prose of angry anti-immigration troll Stephen Miller, it has already been characterized by historians as of a piece with the rest of the deep thinking young fascist’s pronouncements and policies, informed by his masters’ uninformed views of history, race and genetics.

I’m not interested, at the moment, in how debunkable this provocatively released (had to be on MLK Day, y’all) report is, how many historians have already come forward to attack it as the amateur ahistorical attempt to rewrite history that it is. I am thinking about the difference between truth-telling and endlessly repeating lies in the service of what is blandly called “ideology”.

The word ideology gives a veneer of respectability to otherwise disprovable, often ridiculous “theories” that underly “ideology”, ideas that are not actually worthy of serious discussion (“Trickle down economics,” “Birtherism” “child-blood-drinking pedophile elites running the opposition to Trump” etc.) appear serious. “White Supremacy” is an ideology, as is “fascism” as is “Movement Conservatism” as is belief in “the Unitary Executive”. All serve a view of the world, based on protecting certain minority interests, always at the expense of the interests of vast populations. Each “ideology” extolls one group while vilifying and marginalizing a much larger group.

Martin Luther King pushed for social change using nonviolent mass protest based on Gandhi’s satyagraha [1] “holding firmly to truth” or “truth force”. The principle is based in ahimsa, non-harm, which requires a person to hold firm in her quest for justice, to be direct in expressing opposition to injustice, but not to use violence, in fact, to be willing to suffer injury yourself, to bring about the desired change. Satyagraha works, when it does, by awakening the sleeping conscience of society to oppose immoral harms it tolerates.

King and his colleagues brought white racist willingness to inflict every brutality on Americans who sought to simply have the same rights as everyone else to TV screens across the world. When masses saw vicious dogs loosed on peaceful protesters, bloody beatings, high pressure firehoses used to push terrified protesters against walls and shop windows, millions were sickened. Moral pressure increased to change some of the worst of the in-your-face unfairness of “Separate but Equal”. Legislation was eventually passed, after the assassination of JFK who came fully aboard the anti-racism train late in his presidency, protecting Voting Rights, fair housing rights and other rights long denied the descendants of former slaves.

JFK had a tricky relationship with MLK, and initially kept his distance from him, in part because J. Edgar Hoover, unprincipled anti-Communist crusader and longtime FBI director, wrote a secret memo to the Attorney General (JFK’s brother) alleging that MLK was a communist sympathizer. The allegations were false — the ‘information’ it was based on was laughably thin, one adviser of King’s had once been a member of the party, but had renounced his membership years earlier (leaving aside Americans’ right to membership in any political party we choose) — but Hoover stood by the truthfulness of the memo smearing King as “red” and refused to divulge sources, citing top secrecy that even the president and Attorney General were not cleared to have access to [2]. The more things change…

King came to see that racism, poverty and militarism were inseparable parts of the same implacable monster of injustice. Integrating public accommodations across the country was a small step forward that didn’t address the underlying causes of great human misery in the wealthiest country in history. The reason we have racism in America is closely related to the reasons we have massive wealth inequality and widespread poverty in the land of abundance. It doesn’t take a communist sympathizer to grasp this. Militarism, using overwhelming deadly force to “pacify” and to “solve problems”, is the irresistible force that allows injustice to persist, as the military leeches hundreds of billions of dollars needed to mount a serious program to alleviate poverty. The problem is not “white” vs. “black”, the problem is a society that allows vast inequality and massive poverty, supported by “ideology” (like a belief in white superiority) and deploys overwhelming deadly violence against those who express any problem with the arrangement.

A year to the day from King’s Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam speech in NYC, coincidentally we are told, a lone gunman silenced King’s voice with a gunshot to the throat (actually, the sniper’s bullet hit him in the cheek [3]). Listening to King’s Vietnam speech you hear simple truth spoken, truth which has been confirmed by history, truth even more undeniably true when seen against our wars in Iraq, Panama, Afghanistan, death by drone, all the proxy wars, like the brutal, current American-backed Saudi war in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East.

The plain truth of the speech, and our government’s perpetuation of the same brutality over and over since VIetnam, makes King sound like a prophet. The speech also marked King as a dangerous “trouble maker”. Major media (the NY Times and Washington Post among them, of course) attacked him as straying from his lane, destroying his credibility, his legacy. He was marginalized after that speech, monetary support for his cause withered as a result of the widespread media criticism, yet he persisted. He was organizing a biracial Poor People’s Campaign when he was murdered by yer proverbial lone gunman.

Here is some of what he said in the speech that marked him as a man worthy of silencing. See if you can find fault in it. I can’t, particularly in light of the countless equally “controversial” uses of overwhelming American military force, often on the shakiest of grounds, since.

At this point, I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called “enemy,” I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else, for it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after the short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long, they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America, who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.

This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words, and I quote: “Each day the war goes on, the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism,” unquote.

If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.

The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.

In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war and set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.

Part of our ongoing — part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under the new regime, which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We must provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country, if necessary.

Meanwhile — meanwhile, we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task: While we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment, we must continue to raise our voices and our lives if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible.

These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.

the rest of the speech is here


Satyagraha, or holding firmly to truth, or truth force, is a particular form of nonviolent resistance or civil resistance. Someone who practices satyagraha is a satyagrahi. The term satyagraha was coined and developed by Mahatma Gandhi. Wikipedia


This was discussed at length in the excellent Kennedy and King, the President, the Pastor and the Battle of Civil Rights, by Steven Levingston. The book is a fascinating, detailed, suspenseful account of the dramatic push and pull during that struggle for human rights. I highly recommend it, particularly in the audiobook version, which is read by a very talented reader.


The bullet entered through King’s right cheek, breaking his jaw and several vertebrae as it traveled down his spinal cord, severing his jugular vein and major arteries in the process, before lodging in his shoulder.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s