The Second Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

King’s nightmare of racism is being presented as his dream.

An illustration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s face obscured by signs protesting against critical race theory
Photo illustration by Adam Maida / The Atlantic; Images: William Lovelace / Getty; Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

About the author: Ibram X. Kendi is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He is the author of several books, including the National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and How to Be an Antiracist.

Early on the evening of October 23, 2019, I took a tour of the Lorraine Motel. I’d been to Memphis, Tennessee, several times before, and I’d come back to speak at the National Civil Rights Museum, which encompasses the motel. But until that October, I’d never been able to bring myself to visit the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

I saw what King saw moments before he saw no more. His second-floor room had been preserved. Walking into there was like walking into 1968. I saw the antique dishes from the motel’s kitchen. I saw two beds: one for King, unmade, and one for his friend Ralph Abernathy. On April 4, 1968, King had been feeling under the weather.

The night before he was killed, King addressed striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis. “If something isn’t done, and in a hurry,” he said, “to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”

I walked out of Room 306, as King did, around 6 p.m. From the balcony, I looked down on a white 1959 Dodge Royal and a white 1968 Cadillac. King looked down to talk with some friends in the parking lot. He turned to walk back into his room. A bullet smashed into his neck. I stood on the concrete square where King’s life fell. I looked to where King’s associates pointed in the sniper’s direction.

I did not say anything during the tour. A guide spoke, but I couldn’t hear him. My silence kept screaming in my solemnness. I would grieve in silence (and later in words).

The second assassination of King began days after the first assassination. Almost a third of Americans polled in April 1968 felt that King himself was to blame for his assassination, felt that he had “brought it on himself.” When King was killed, he was one of the most hated people in the United States. Nearly half of Black Americans and three-quarters of white Americans disapproved of him when he stepped out onto that motel balcony. Death threats were a fact of his life.

King’s first assassins professed to hate him half a century ago. His second assassins profess to revere him. Death threats to King’s legacy are now sold as love songs to his legacy. King is adored in death, literally. King is still hated in life.

Take the small Ohio crowd that gathered for a political rally last month. A white woman held a sign that read EDUCATE DON’T INDOCTRINATE. Another sign said SAVE THE DIVISION FOR MATH CLASS. Another person held a large poster of King.

Josh Mandel, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, spoke to the crowd. “What the liberals are doing by advancing the cause of critical race theory—they are stomping on the grave of Martin Luther King,” said Mandel, whose internal poll shows him leading the Republican primary race.

“Martin Luther King once said that he had a dream that his grandkids would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” Mandel added. “But what you have going on in the government schools by these liberals and the media, by the secular left, by the radical left, they’re trying to make everything about skin color.”

The sniper shots aimed at King’s body of work sound this way almost every time. His modern-day assassins endlessly recite King’s “dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”—as if that was all King said during his 1963 March on Washington speech. They disregard the lines before and after it, when King lamented that his dream was being thwarted by “vicious racists” in places “sweltering with the heat of oppression.” They disregard King’s paraphrase of his iconic “dream” line in 1965: that “one day all of God’s Black children will be respected like his white children.” They disregard King’s recognition that the civil-rights movement did not end racism, leading him to tell an NBC News correspondent on May 8, 1967, that the “dream that I had [in 1963] has at many points turned into a nightmare.” (Ironically, it was this nightmare of post-civil-rights racial inequality that caused legal scholars in the 1970s to develop critical race theory in law schools, particularly to study and reveal the law’s role in the maintenance of inequality.)

King’s modern-day assassins disregard everything he said about education. “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance,” King wrote in 1967. “It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

They disregard King’s worry about the effects of not teaching Black history, including white people internalizing notions of superiority and Black people internalizing notions of inferiority. “The history books, which have almost completely ignored the contribution of the Negro in American history, have only served to intensify the Negroes’ sense of worthlessness and to augment the anachronistic doctrine of white supremacy,” King wrote in 1967.

But all of this disregarding of King’s words has not been the worst of it. The distortions are what’s truly lethal to his legacy, such as the claim that King’s dream was for his four little children to live in a nation where despite numerous racial disparities, no one judges racism or mentions skin color and everyone judges only character, because a hierarchy of character is apparently causing the inequities. King’s nightmare of racism is being presented as King’s dream.

Those who distort King’s dream are now also distorting critical race theory, and distorting CRT to distort King. “Critical race theory is a Marxist doctrine that rejects the vision of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Donald Trump said at a Michigan campaign rally last October. In July, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “Critical race theory goes against everything Martin Luther King has ever told us, don’t judge us by the color of our skin, and now they’re embracing it.”

It is wrong to present King, who continuously spoke out against racism, as someone who stood against people speaking out against racism. It is wrong to claim that teachers educating their students about past and present racism “are stomping on the grave of Martin Luther King,” to quote Mandel. But people such as Trump, McCarthy, and Mandel aren’t simply stomping on King’s grave themselves. These self-professed admirers of King are digging a new grave, and burying King’s body of work within it.

Texas state Senator Bryan Hughes said in July that he was aggrieved by educators teaching “the inverse of what Dr. King taught us.” But this same legislator proposed a bill weeks earlier that would have removed King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and “Letter From Birmingham Jail” from the Texas state curriculum. This year, the Tennessee group Moms for Liberty attempted to ban Frances E. Ruffin’s book Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington. Pennsylvania’s Central York School District banned Brad Meltzer’s I Am Martin Luther King, Jr. Two years ago, the Columbia County School District in Georgia banned Nic Stone’s Dear Martin. There’s no contradiction in these elected officials and parents banning books about a historical figure they claim to adore when they adore this historical figure only now that he is dead.

King’s adult children have spent the past year defending their father’s legacy. In the latest instance, Bernice King invited Josh Mandel, in response to his Ohio rally speech, “to study my father’s teachings in full and in context. He was not a drum major for a colorblind society, but for justice.”

“Spare me your lectures,” Mandel shot back.

“I don’t see liberals stomping on my father’s grave,” Martin Luther King III tweeted at Mandel. “I see a GOP effort to whitewash history.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Mandel tweeted.

Mandel then addressed both of them together on Twitter. “You guys are just charlatans who use CRT to pervert his legacy and make money. He was a leader among leaders who brought people together and tore down racial barriers.”

When President Ronald Reagan marked the first federally recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in January 1986, he saluted “all those who have continued to work for brotherhood, for justice, for racial harmony—for a truly color-blind America where all people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. To them I say, never, never abandon the dream.”

Reagan abandoned government efforts to eliminate racial inequities, and constantly evoked King to justify his abandonment. King, though, had been clear about how to achieve his dream. “If we are going to make the American dream a reality, we are challenged to work in an action program to get rid of the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination,” King said in his 1965 “American Dream” speech. “This problem isn’t going to solve itself.”

But Reagan Republicans then and Trump Republicans today have disparaged these anti-racist action programs to eliminate racial disparities as “racist,” as “reverse discrimination,” as handing out “special privileges” or “special treatment,” all of which they claim King opposed.

“It is, however, important to understand that giving a man his due may often mean giving him special treatment,” King wrote in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here. “I am aware of the fact that this has been a troublesome concept for many liberals, since it conflicts with their traditional ideal of equal opportunity and equal treatment of people according to their individual merits.”

Fifty-four years later, this remains a troublesome concept for many Americans who declare that they adore King. “Identity politics values people by characteristics like race, sex, and sexual orientation and holds that new times demand new rights to replace the old,” Trump’s 1776 Commission report stated in January. “This is the opposite of King’s hope that his children would ‘live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’”

The 1776 Commission tried to turn King into an advocate of “color-blind civil rights.” But King had already written back in 1967: “This is a day which demands new thinking and the reevaluation of old concepts. A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”

Historians and writers have called attention again and again and again to the “misappropriation” of King, the misunderstanding of King, the stealing of King, the attempts to “defang” King, the “watering down” of King, the “whitewashing” of King by the conservators of racial inequity. As the distortions of King have intensified over the years, so too has the language denouncing them.

And yet, the second assassination is about King and hardly about King at all. If Mandel is an avatar of the snipers, then King is an avatar of history. The second assassination of King is the latest assassination of history. The war on science, on expertise, on facts, on journalism, on democracy necessitates a concomitant war on history. And the war on history is the war on education—as history is essentially educational. If an anti-racist King can be turned into a color-blind conservator of racism, then anyone and anything from history can be assassinated. Pro-slavery Founding Fathers can be recast as having been “against slavery.” Racist Confederate rebels can be recast as “not racist” heroes deserving of monuments in town squares.

Assassinating the reality of the past assassinates the reality of the present (and creates a new simulated reality). In this simulated reality, critical race theory can be warped into being like Jim Crow. Anti-American insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6 can be presented as pro-American patriots. Education can be turned into indoctrination, and indoctrination can be turned into education. Teaching children that there’s nothing special about their skin color can be turned into teaching children to hate their skin color. People organizing and writing against racism can be portrayed as “race politics profiteers,” as Mandel sadistically framed Bernice King.

It’s been a year. I’ve raged. But rage has not been my overwhelming emotion as I’ve witnessed the assassinations of reality, of history, of King. I’ve largely felt grief, like I did at the Lorraine Motel two years ago. Grief—as I long for the wisdom of evidence and history to guide our policy decisions. Grief—as I long for King to live through his body of anti-racist words. Grief—as I realize that the assassins of his legacy will stop at nothing until those words are dead, until every trace of the dreamer of a multiracial democracy is gone.

I remember leaving the Lorraine Motel’s museum that night. I walked past the old cars in the parking lot to view the large historical inscription opposite King’s motel room. I looked up at his motel room, and looked down at the biblical passage that reads:

They said one to another,

Behold, here cometh the dreamer …

Let us slay him …

And we shall see what will become of his dreams.