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Why were so many American political figures assassinated in the 1960s?

Martin Luther King  at the Lincoln Memorial, during the march on Washington, 1963

It was just after 6pm on Thursday 4th April 1968, when Dr Martin Luther King was shot in the back of the neck, as he and Reverend Jesse Jackson stood on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

After years of FBI surveillance, death threats and multiple attempts on his life, history’s most iconic black civil rights leader had finally succumbed; he died in hospital the next day.

Two months later, Robert F Kennedy, presidential hopeful and JFK’s younger brother, had just finished his victory speech at The Ambassador Hotel, after winning the Californian Democratic Primary.

As he shook hands with staff in the hotel kitchen, Sirhan Sirhan descended, grinning, from a tray-stacker, and opened fire with an eight-shot revolver.

It is the decade’s greatest paradox, that the 1960s can bring forth visions of Woodstock, love-ins and flower power, alongside grim archive news footage and circuitous discussion around “second shooters”, “patsies” and “deep state”.

John F. Kennedy’s murder shook America and the world on 22 November, 1963.

Black Muslim activist Malcolm X was shot by Nation of Islam members in 1965.

George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, was killed in 1967.

So why were there so many assassinations in the 1960s in America?

A decade of violence

With revolution in the air, the 1960s was a period of ferocious civil unrest, not just in the US, but all over the world.

“The reaction to the upheaval of the 60s is violent,” says Fabio Lanza, a cultural historian at the University of Arizona. “And it’s violent at various levels.”

“Almost every major national leader of the black struggle in the United States is assassinated,”

The decade saw mass global protests met with police brutality; terrorism in Italy and across Africa; the Black Panthers’ escalating war with law enforcement.

The high profile assassinations were important in their own right, Lanza argues, but they were also the tip of a very large iceberg.

There is no better illustration of this cycle of violence than the black civil rights movement.

“Almost every major national leader of the black struggle in the United States is assassinated,” says Alan Shane Dillingham, who lectures on the 1960s at Spring Hill College, Alabama.  

Fellow Civil Rights Champion Malcolm X was murdered two years after Martin Luther King

“I don’t think people sit down and contemplate that history. Not just Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, but also Medgar Evers, who’s a civil rights activist in Mississippi, various members of the Black Panther Party, including Fred Hampton, in Chicago, who was a young charismatic Black Panther leader, who was 22, when he was killed by the Chicago police in his bed, in the middle of the night.”

“They threatened the status quo that was powerfully in place at the time,”

This unpalatable truth, in Dillingham’s view, reflects the enormous threat the struggle for black liberation posed to sections of US society.

John A. Kirk, Race and Ethnicity Director at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Anderson Institute’s concurs.

“They threatened the status quo that was powerfully in place at the time,” he says of these assassinated black civil rights leaders.

“Racial stratification has always been an important part of the United States experience, from slavery to the present. Threatening  that order and threatening that white privilege and white supremacy – the violent responses just underline how important it was.”

Much of the violence, Dillingham and Lanza both argue, comes from the state itself.

Black liberation posed an enormous threat to American society

Dillingham points to the FBI’s controversial COINTELPRO operation under Director J Edgar Hoover, which involved the harassment and even murder of radical activists throughout the decade.

“And so, the US government, itself, was breaking the law and using extra-judicial violence against 1960s activists, whether they were black leaders or anti-war activists.”

Vietnam

As a constant backdrop to 1960s’ almost-revolution, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War served to intensify conflict and escalate violence.

The scale of the war’s carnage was unprecedented, and, for the first time, people were watching it unfold in their living rooms.

The Vietnam War created new tensions in American society

King, himself, alienated key Democratic allies, with his vocal opposition the war in the later years of his life.

Robert Kennedy, at the time of his assassination, carried the hopes of some, that he would alter US policy on the war, should he become president.

Like the black movement, anti-war protestors were also targeted violently by the State.

But there was a second shooter….

The papers may be out – but JFK, the mother of all conspiracy theories transcended, long ago, into legend.

Was it, the CIA? Russia? Cuba? The mob? Or has Ted Cruz’s dad had everyone fooled all along? (his son is the Zodiac killer after all!!)?

In a tragic and eerie coincidence – one of many in the Kennedy dynasty – JFK’s younger brother went on to suffer the same fate five years later.

In his documentary RFK Must Die, writer and filmmaker Shane O’Sullivan not only argues there was second shooter, but goes further to implicate the CIA (who, some argue, have been known to dabble in the occasional assassination plot).

James Earl Ray, convicted of Dr King’s murder, later retracted his confession and found unlikely allies in King’s own family.

His attorney, William Pepper, spent years arguing that Dr King’s murder was a huge Government conspiracy, involving the police, the army and the Mafia.

Was Martin Luther King murdered by the government

Others, on the other hand, think conspiracy theorists tend to overanalyse.

Errol Morris’s short documentary “The Umbrella Man” explores an enduring obsession with one man pictured holding an umbrella close to JFK’s shooting.

In the film, Josiah Thompson, who first coined the term “umbrella man” says: “If you have any fact which you think is really sinister – right? Is really obviously a fact which can only point to some sinister underpinning… hey, forget it man! Because you can never, on your own, think up all the non-sinister, perfectly valid explanations for that fact.”

Or maybe…

“Still a lot of discontented people today, right, and a lot of issues that seem near a boiling point? And a lot of guns,” writes “Joe Roberts”. “The important difference is the level of security around important people in 2016. No president or presidential candidate is going to ride through the downtown of a major city in an open convertible. Or even walk unattended through a hotel kitchen filled with random, unchecked people who hadn't gone through metal detectors.”