Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Source: commons.wikipedia.com)

S. E. Williams | BVN Executive Editor

“Once upon this planet earth, lived a man of humble birth, preaching love and freedom for his fellow man. He was dreaming of a day, peace would come to earth to stay, and he spread this message all across the land. Turn the other cheek he’d plead, love thy neighbor was his creed, pain, humiliation, death, he did not dread. With his Bible at his side, from his foes he did not hide. It’s hard to think that this great man is dead. Will the murders never cease, are they men or are they beasts?”

– Nina Simone

It has been 53 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead in Memphis on Thursday, April 4, 1968.

Like many others, I too have lived long enough to see such assassinations play out again and again in my lifetime — not only here in America with the assassination of movement leaders like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and MLK, but also in far-flung corners of the world with the murders of those like Salvador Allende in Chile, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Benigno Aquino of the Philippines and others.

For me it has always begged the question: When leaders of social movements are assassinated, why are those assassins so confident killing a movement’s leader will also kill the movement? Or, are they?

Coming of age in the wake of Malcolm’s and then King’s assassination I grew familiar with the mantras, “You can kill the dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream.” “You can’t kill an idea whose time has come.” “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” Certainly, I often chanted them myself. And of course, there is the chant of the new era, “You can’t kill us all.”

I also came to realize over the years though you may not kill the dream, the idea, or the movement, you can certainly derail it, slow it down, amplify fear, dampen the spirits of those involved.

Social scientists who have studied the effectiveness of assassinations coalesce around the idea that governments kill social movement leaders to halt challenges to state power.  For me this appears too simple an explanation, because it seems the social movements where leaders are most often assassinated primarily involve those who are fighting for social justice. We would be hard pressed to build a list, among the assassinated, of those killed because they pushed racist and or fascist ideologies.

Regarding assassinations in general, social scientists have offered some insight to why—in the wake of assassinations—some movements continue and ultimately succeed while others have failed. They highlight how factors—internal to the movement—can make a difference. The ability for a movement to persevere when its leader is assassinated can be attributed to the type of movement, its ideology of martyrdom, how well the leader embodied a shared group identity and whether the movement was rooted in pre-existing ideology.

I also came to realize over the years though you may not kill the dream, the idea, or the movement, you can certainly derail it, slow it down, amplify fear, dampen the spirits of those involved.

The research study I reviewed though limited in scope, offered the following hypotheses beginning with the belief that  harsh and comprehensive state repression in the wake of a movement leader’s murder can stifle future activism.

Next, the type of leader murdered matters. It appears when prophetic leaders are killed like Martin Luther King Jr., there is greater outside attention and enhanced moral outrage than when an administrative leader is assassinated.

A third important factor has to do with what social scientists  identified as an ideology of martyrdom. For example, if the movement operated in a society where martyrdom has deep cultural roots—like in Christian societies for example—then it is probable the dead leader will be considered a martyr.  This can inspire continuation of the movement.

Finally, movements led by leaders whose goals are broad and the leader him/herself embodies a shared group identity—like King and the African American community, for example—the movement is more likely to sustain.

In my estimation, King fit this model as did the nation that fertilized the ground which led to his assassination. This makes it easy to understand why the movement for social justice continues 53 year after his murder.

Certainly, the movement has ebbed and flowed—but he warned the “moral arc of the universe was long.” In addition, the hypothesis of these social scientists appear to affirm the mantras noted above, “You can kill the dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream.” “You can’t kill an idea whose time has come.” “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.”

Considering all of this it takes us back to the title of this piece, Why They Killed the King. The answer to me seems obvious, they always kill the king. Think about it.  

British politician Benjamin Disraelise said, “Whether or not assassinations change ‘the history of the world’ … they do appear to change the history of individual countries.” To that I would add, assassinations successfully stymie progress as we have experienced here in America, to social justice reform, equity, and access to power.

When assassins kill again and again as I have witnessed in my lifetime for the mere goal of slowing, preventing social progress, I can only ask, “Will the murders never cease, are they men or are they beasts?”

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.

S. E. Williams is executive editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News.