The Re-Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.


Photograph Source: Jason Riedy – CC BY 2.0

This year, the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, an agency of the Arkansas Department of Education, has invited an un-reconstructed Southern Baptist preacher, right wing politician, and Fox News pundit named Mike Huckabee to deliver a “keynote address” during what it terms an “inter-faith prayer breakfast” on the King holiday (January 17). Attendance will be by invitation only. The event will be held at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion.

A year to the day before he was assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist pastor, publicly defined the war in Vietnam as a civil rights issue on April 4, 1967, in an address titled Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence to a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York City.  In doing so, King uttered the following prescient statement.

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy-and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. … In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution.  … I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.  We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society.  When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.  On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act.  One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.  True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial.  It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.  A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.  With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say:  “This is not just.”  It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say:  “This is not just.”  … A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.”  This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.  A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values.  There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.  There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.[1]

Public reaction to King’s message was swift and hostile.  A number of editorial writers attacked him for connecting Vietnam to the civil rights movement.  The New York Times issued an editorial claiming that King had damaged the peace movement as well as the civil rights movement.  Life magazine assailed the speech as “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.”  The Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American publication, charged King with “tragically misleading” black people.  And at the White House, President Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying, “What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me?  We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the War on Poverty.  What more does he want?”[2]

King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee exactly one year after he delivered the speech written by Vincent Harding, a black historian and trusted friend.  Despite the hostile reaction to the speech, Martin King and Vincent Harding never disavowed it.  But Harding always believed the speech was the reason King was murdered.  “It was precisely one year to the day after this speech that that bullet which had been chasing him for a long time finally caught up with him,” Harding said in a 2010 interview. “And I am convinced that that bullet had something to do with that speech. And over the years, that’s been quite a struggle for me.”[3]

Nine years after his death King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by another Baptist from Georgia, President Jimmy Carter.  A federal holiday has been established to honor his birthday.  His statue has been placed in Washington, DC.  Numerous cities and towns have re-named major traffic arteries for him in the United States, and he is revered throughout the world as one of the most prophetic souls of the twentieth century, if not the modern era.  When President Barack Obama took the oath of office to begin his second term, he placed his hand on a Bible that belonged to King and alluded to him during his inaugural address.

Yet the veneration of King has not included any significant or serious effort by U.S. policymakers, social commentators, and moral leaders—including Baptist clergy, laity, associations, denominations, and educational institutions—to embrace the “radical revolution of values” King called for in A Time to Break Silence.  The “giant triplets” of racism, militarism, and materialism have not been confronted.  The U.S. currently devotes more of its budget on national defense and homeland security than on educating children, fighting disease, feeding the hungry and alleviating poverty.

We may never learn the true financial cost of the tragic military misadventure known as the war in Iraq.  As the tenth anniversary of the war in Iraq approached Reuters reported on a study by a team of academicians which tallied the cost of the war at $1.7 trillion, a figure that did not include $490 billion owed to Iraqi war veterans for disability benefits.  The study projected that expenses related to the war in Iraq could grow to more than $6 trillion over the next four decades.[4]

After U.S. forces finally withdrew from Afghanistan last year I wrote: In total, 2,448 U.S. service members have died. Tens of thousands more were injured. The U.S. spent more than $2.26 trillion — including more than $500 billion for interest — for the military effort in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan since 2001.

The result of those sacrifices is more than disappointing to U.S. families who lost loved ones, to veterans who lost comrades, to veterans who are permanently maimed and scarred in ways that only war can cause, and to people who care for them. The sorrow and anguish felt by men, women and children in Afghanistan who hoped the U.S.-led war would defeat the Taliban goes beyond disappointment. For those persons, the outcome of the war in Afghanistan is so heartbreaking that we will never have enough money and words to tally and talk about it.[5]

At the same time U.S. leaders—including Baptist and other religious leaders—are venerating King’s memory they have ignored or rejected his call for the United States to use its wealth and prestige to lead the world in a radical revolution of values that rejects war as the preferred means of resolving differences.  Former President Barack Obama could not have been guided by the vision of the Baptist preacher whose Bible he used for his second inauguration.  Although Obama could not persuade U.S. officials and global allies to embrace a military response to Syria the way George W. Bush did concerning Iraq, U.S. militarism continues to cast an ominous cloud over the world and hinder efforts to address glaring problems at home.

Jonathan Tran’s 2012 essay about the war policies of the Obama administration reminds us that Obama articulated what Tran termed “a theology of war.”[6]   It is more than sadly ironic that the first African American to hold the office of President of the United States oversaw a policy of killing American citizens by using armed drones.  The militarism King criticized was also clear in the virulent response by Obama and other U.S. leaders to the disclosures by Edward Snowden that the U.S. engaged in wholesale spying on American citizens and others throughout the world—including the leaders of nations considered its allies.

Decades after King was murdered by a gunman, the nation suffered the massacre of twenty children and six adult staff members of Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Town, Connecticut by a shooter who had already killed his mother and later killed himself. The militarism that drives U.S. global policy seems to have turned on our own children.  The response to the Sandy Hook massacre was not, however, to confront the giant of militarism.  Firearm manufacturers and their lobbyists, like defense contractors and their lobbyists, now hold more influence than ever before.

Sadly, devotion to corporate profit-making continues to hamstring efforts to make our society and the world safe.  Thus, militarism has joined forces with materialism so much that American schools look and feel more like fortresses than places where children are nurtured to learn, work, and play together.  We somehow are blind to the stark moral and ethical contradiction of singing Let There Be Peace on Earth while arming schoolteachers and cheering people who openly brandish handguns.

The moral and ethical disconnect between the rhetoric used to venerate King and the persistence of entrenched racism in American life continues to afflict us.   Policymakers refuse to acknowledge the plain truth that the “law and order,” and “war on drugs” mantra used by every U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson produced the mass incarceration of millions of people who are disproportionately persons of color.  Thanks to the not always covert racism of “law and order” and “war on drugs” enthusiasts, more black people are politically and socially disenfranchised in the United States now than were enslaved in 1850, ten years before the Civil War began, a fact Professor Michelle Alexander forcefully presented in her 2010 book titled The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness.[7]

Oppressive law enforcement policies that gave rise to civil unrest during Dr. King’s lifetime still operate against people who are black and brown.  Years after President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder became the first black persons to hold their respective offices, the terrorism of racial profiling remained as prevalent as when Dr. King was assassinated, if not more so.

Insensitivity to the insidious racism that poisoned the United States when King was killed has not changed.  Trayvon Martin,[8] Oscar Grant,[9] and Amadou Diallo,[10] like Martin Luther King, Jr., were black men shot to death by people who claimed the moral and legal right to take their lives.   The racism and militarism King deplored in 1967 were major factors in causing the August 9, 2014, death of Michael Brown, Jr., an 18-year-old un-armed black teenager shot to death by Darren Wilson, formerly of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department.  That racism and militarism also accounted for the killing of Eric Garner, who was choked to death on July 23, 2014, by Daniel Pantaleo while other New York Police Department officers pressed their knees on Garner’s torso despite his repeated statement “I can’t breathe!”

The world has since then suffered the trauma of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis Police Officer who pressed his full kneeling weight against Floyd’s head and neck as the helpless man died pleading for his mother. Do not forget how Elijah McClain died at the hands of Aurora, Colorado police. Plainly, the United States has not become more informed about or responsive to racial injustice since King died.  We have simply militarized the injustice in brazen ways.

We have not confronted or corralled the giant triplets of militarism, materialism, and racism.  Rather, we have added sexism (including homophobia and transphobia), classism, and techno-centrism to the mix.  The triplets are sextuplets now!

The painful truth is that political, commercial, and even religious leaders are comfortable bestowing platitudes on King’s life and ministry while actively and deliberately disregarding his warnings and call for repentance.  Our leaders play on (some would say pimp) King’s moral authority for their own benefit at every opportunity.  However, they question the relevancy of his teachings and warnings for our time.

It is bad enough that politicians and pundits do so. Now the Arkansas Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission has invited Mike Huckabee to deliver the keynote speech during a January 17, 2022, event intended to commemorate the King holiday. Huckabee is a Fox News right wing commentator, former Arkansas governor, and white Southern (slaveholder) Baptist preacher. His daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was spokesperson for former President Donald Trump’s vicious policies and is a Republican candidate for governor of Arkansas this year.

Such contradictory behavior amounts to what I have called “re-assassination” of Martin Luther King Jr.  King’s ministry and message is being re-murdered by drone warfare, NSA surveillance, a militarized law enforcement culture, and our support for regimes that use military force to oppress minority populations in this society and elsewhere in the world (militarism), and by the half-truths and outright lies uttered to defend those actions.

King is re-murdered by fiscal policies that promote the corporate interests of investment bankers over the lives and fortunes of workers, homeowners, retirees, and needy people (materialism).

King’s dedication to attack and eliminate the causes of systemic poverty is currently being re-assassinated by policies that widen the glaring income inequality between the super-wealthy and the poor (classism).

King’s righteous indignation against injustice is murdered by proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel” and those who use religion as a weapon to deny civil rights to people who are LGBTQI, poor, immigrants, women, or otherwise vulnerable (racism and sexism).

King’s call for a radical revolution of values is murdered when we profess to honor his memory while bowing to the techno-centrism responsible for poisoning community aquifers through fracking for natural gas. Thanks to capitalist greed and political incompetence, devotion to techno-centrism has produced melting polar ice, rising oceans, climate change, global warming, growing deserts, dying coral reefs, raging wildfires, and ever worsening weather patterns.

When we honestly assess the mood and conduct of U.S. leaders and the public at large—including religious leaders—since King was assassinated in Memphis, it becomes clear that we have not chosen to embrace the “radical revolution of values” King articulated.  We have not weakened the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism.  We have nourished, bred, and multiplied them. Religious leaders such as Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. who followed King’s model of prophetic criticism and congregational leadership have been rejected and condemned in much the same way President Johnson responded to King.

King was correct when he observed, “America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values.  There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities…”  Sadly, we seem unable to realize that by rejecting his call to reorder our values and priorities—in other words to engage in the Biblical imperative of repentance—we not only “re-assassinate” King.  By rejecting his values while pretending to venerate King as our greatest prophet we are destroying ourselves and risk losing any moral authority we claim as agents for peace, justice, and truth in the world.

Sooner or later, those who feed a death wish find a way to destroy themselves. Over the course of the past three generations we have watched and heard the death rattle of the society that rejected Martin Luther King Jr. during his lifetime, killed him, and has re-assassinated him since the day he died.

Now that the State of Arkansas has proudly announced its intention to “re-assassinate King” by having an un-reconstructed Southern Baptist preacher and right wing politician named Mike Huckabee deliver a “keynote address” on the King holiday at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion at the invitation of the state agency that bears King’s name, we should be clear what its conduct means.

A society that behaves this way has gone beyond a death rattle. It is already morally and ethically dead.

We are attending the visitation.

This analysis is revised from my March 24, 2015, T.B. Matson lecture at the now closed Logsdon Seminary on the campus of Hardin-Simmons University in Waco, Texas. Another version of this commentary appears at chapter 5 of The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope (Judson Press, 2017).  


[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence is among the writings of Dr. King compiled by James Melvin Washington and published under the title A Testament of Hope:  The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1986).

[2] For reactions to Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence see




[6] JONATHAN TRAN, Obama, War, and Christianity:  The Audacity of Hope and the Violence of Peace (Christian Ethics Today, Spring 2012).

[7] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness, (New York: The New Press, 2010).

[8] Trayvon Martin was a seventeen year-old black male who was shot to death by George Zimmerman as Martin was returning to his father’s residence from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida the night of February 26, 2012.  Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury on the charge of manslaughter.

[9] Oscar Grant III was fatally shot in the back at point blank range by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle during the early hours of New Year’s Day of 2009 in Oakland, California.  Mehserle was eventually convicted by a jury of involuntary manslaughter, served two years in the Los Angeles County Jail, minus time served.

[10] Amadou Diallo was a twenty-three year old Guinean immigrant who was shot and killed by four New York City Police officers who fired 41 bullets, 19 of which struck Diallo, outside his apartment in the Bronx.  All four police officers were later acquitted of criminal charges related to Diallo’s death.

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