What impacts have the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy had on American political culture?

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The British writer and historian Thomas Carlyle famously stated that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." Although this view of history dominated the early and middle parts of the nineteenth-century, by the end of the century, historians began to understand the world in more...

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The British writer and historian Thomas Carlyle famously stated that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." Although this view of history dominated the early and middle parts of the nineteenth-century, by the end of the century, historians began to understand the world in more complex and nuanced fashions, observing, for example, that revolutionary social movements were not just the work of a few "great men," but of many men and women with shared ideas coming together to work for change. While biographies of great men and women can make for fascinating and inspiring reading, they can also mislead people into overestimating the importance of a small number of celebrity individuals.

The assassinations of both Kennedy men contributed to a sort of cultish mystique around the family. Although both were highly charismatic figures who were strong presences in politics, they also contributed, both as living figures and as martyrs, to a dynastic element in United States politics. As part of the reason for the American Revolution was to get rid of a hereditary aristocracy, this sort of romanticization of dynastic politics is problematic and can lead to nepotism and corruption. The assassination of Kennedy and nomination of the less charismatic Humphrey may have contributed to Nixon's 1968 election victory.

The assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. provided martyr figures whose memories inspired two very different elements of the African American rights community. Many others, though, have been carrying on similar work and, thus, while their deaths were tragic, they were events which crystallized more general movements, rather than singular causes of political change.

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I would argue that each of these assassinations had different effects on the political culture of the day. John F. Kennedy's assassination, for example, actually contributed to strengthening the political will to enact civil rights legislation. He had proposed such legislation not long before his death, and Lyndon Johnson evoked his name in promoting the final passage of what would become the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson's experience and skill at negotiating in Congress actually played a major role in securing passage of the bill. The Malcolm X assassination signaled the profound differences between different wings of the emerging Black Power movement, and perhaps deprived that movement of a leader that was moving more toward moderation. The deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968 contributed to a growing sense of disillusionment and anxiety. Popular discontent with the Vietnam War was beginning to peak, and these two figures had publicly voiced their opposition to the conflict. Each was viewed as a unifying figure at a time when society seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Some historians have argued that their assassinations, along with the riots that followed King's death, made many Americans turn to a so-called "law and order" candidate in Richard Nixon.

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This is, of course, a question that cannot be answered in an objective way.  There is no way to tell for sure what impact any particular event had on American political culture.  My own view is that these assassinations had little, if any, impact on American political culture.

It is possible that the assassinations have had some impact on our political culture.  It is possible to argue that they hurt the American liberal movement.  From this point of view, the assassinations of the two Kennedys deprived the liberal movement of two of its most charismatic and talented politicians.  The death of Dr. King took away the best hope for racial unity and reduced white people’s willingness to support black demands.

I, personally, do not subscribe to this theory.  After John F. Kennedy was killed, President Johnson stepped in and passed a very liberal agenda.  I would argue that it was the problems associated with his policy in Vietnam and his Great Society that helped to destroy liberalism more than anything else.  It is not at all clear that Robert Kennedy would have been able to win the election in 1968 given the baggage of Johnson’s legacy. 

While some would argue that these assassinations harmed American liberalism, I would argue that they had little or no long-term effect on our political culture.  

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