Fifty-four years ago today in Memphis, Tennessee, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. He was in the city to support a strike by Black sanitation workers.
The decade was marked with assassinations, including that of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963. In February 1965, Malcom X was gunned down in upper Manhattan. Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot to death in Los Angeles in June 1968, barely two months following King’s untimely death.
In June 1963, Medgar Evers, field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP, was gunned down. George Lincoln Rockwell, a neo-Nazi advocate, was shot to death in August 1967. A leader of the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton, was shot to death in a police raid on his apartment in Chicago in 1969. These intentional deaths bespeak a personality distinguishing the 1960s from subsequent periods, when mass shootings and killings more commonly characterize gun violence.
In March 1965, the United States committed troops to the war in Vietnam and commenced bombing of the territory. Assassination murders and wars have little to distinguish one from the other except the latter tends to be glorified in the name of some national interest. Most would characterize the murders of the Americans in the 1960s as senseless but withhold that appellation with respect to war. In 1962 the Cuban missile crisis threatened a nuclear conflagration that set a theme for years to come. The threat of mass deaths on the American continent created renewed fears of nuclear war.
The nation’s investment in military conflicts, no matter how reasonably justified, sustain an ethos favoring an armed preparedness culture exemplified by the efforts of the NRA’s advocacy of universal, unrestricted gun ownership; county militias; stand your ground statutes; and, in some respects, the January 6th assault on the Capitol. Neither the Cold War nor the horrific scenes of recurrent mass shootings from Sandy Hook to those in recent weeks have numbed enthusiasm for armed violence in our communities.
Present efforts by peaceful nations to stem the senseless massacre of Ukrainians to create a buffer zone against NATO are a remarkable example of self-restraint in the face of threatening aggression. The message and effort are clear that war and death are not solutions to resolving conflict. Neither nuclear stockpiles nor personal armaments at home are deterrents to aggression or crime. We can hope that the lesson descends upon all Americans as a model for viewing the carnage of gun violence.
Bob Dylan’s folk lyric, “How many deaths will it take till we know, that too many people have died?” as yet remains unanswered. Each of us must answer that question, as nations around the globe have expressed toward Ukraine.