20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations

Jeanette Lamb - February 25, 2017

Assassinations have toppled kings and kingdoms. With each assassination attempt, the smallest details tucked within each unfolding moment have played a role in the outcome. Some assassinations may not have happened, but seemingly trivial details allowed them to happen.

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations
Public Domain

Robert F. Kennedy

After giving a late-night speech in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, instead of meeting with reporters as planned, Senator Robert Kennedy decided at the last minute to exit the Ambassador Hotel through the kitchen where, unbeknownst to him, an assassin waiting for him.

The shooting was captured on audio tape by a freelance newspaper reporter. The visual footage the public would later see was the chaotic aftermath another reporter caught on film. Not unlike other assassins, the man who killed Kennedy was young. Sirhan Sirhan was only 24-years-old at the time of the shooting. He was an immigrant to the United States who recently quit his job where he made two dollars an hour at a health food store in Pasadena, California, where he and his boss saw eye to eye on most subjects; the exception was Israel.

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations
Public Domain

Sirhan was raised an Orthodox Christian. He was a Jordanian citizen, born in Jerusalem, in Mandate Palestine – a place Kennedy spent time visiting in his early twenties. Kennedy consequently expressed admiration for the Jews he met there, and this eventually led him to throw strong political support behind Israel. Sirhan was vehemently against the creation of a Jewish state. Sirhan Sirhan shot Kennedy three times. One of the bullets struck his head behind his ear. It dispersed fragments throughout Kennedy’s brain. Sirhan, when asked to address reasons for his actions only said, “I can explain it. I did it for my country.”

Kennedy’s death had immediate political repercussions. It paved the way for a new candidate to enter the presidential race when Kennedy was in the midst of riding a wave of success. His assassination happened in the middle of the campaign season for the 1968 presidential election. He is still one of only two sitting United States Senators to be assassinated, the other being Huey Long in 1935 in Louisiana. The 1968 election eventually went to Republican candidate Richard Nixon.

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was the son of an American Ambassador. He grew up in Boston, Massachusetts among many brothers and sisters. He eventually became the 35th president of the Untied States, the first Catholic to be elected. He served heroically in World War II before embarking on life in politics.

He had just finished a tour of Russia and Poland when he arrived in London the day World War II broke out. When he was 20-years-old, he sailed to Europe and brought his convertible with him. It was not entirely unlike the one he was riding through Dallas, Texas in when an assassin opened fire, killing him at the age of 46 in 1963.

The primary purpose of Kennedy’s fateful visit to Dallas, Texas in November 1963 was not to parade through the streets in an open convertible so masses of people could see him. He was there to address (and hopefully patch up) tensions in the Democratic Party.

When Kennedy was shot and killed during the motorcade procession, the United States was forever altered. Conspiracy theories began to surface when details about the shooting came to light during the Warren Commission’s investigation when it was proposed that a single bullet caused JFK’s death. The confusion surrounding Kennedy’s assassination foreshadowed the tumultuous years ahead for the U.S.

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations
King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. ABC

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Two months before Robert Kennedy’s assassination, in April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed while at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was a key figure in the U.S. Civil Rights movement, a clergyman, and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Over time, a lot of controversy around his assassination has surfaced. On the one hand, the onset of the initial crime investigation led police to a petty thief and lifelong criminal, James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary. He was arrested on June 8, 1968, in London at Heathrow Airport, extradited to the United States, and charged with the crime.

In March 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to the assassination. His sentence was 99 years. Ray might have received a death sentence had the King family not been ardent supporters of peace. Physical evidence found at the crime scene include a rifle that had been shot at least one time. It, along with binoculars and other items, were coated in Ray’s fingerprints. It was more than enough evidence for a conviction, with or without a guilty plea.

The King family have stood in opposition to the conclusions offered by authorities. They believed the assassination was organized by the FBI, the CIA, the U.S. Army, and the Memphis Police Department and that James Earl Ray acted only as a scapegoat. This complex theory is far-fetched, yet not fully without merit. It gained attention on a large-scale when Loyd Jowers, a businessman from Memphis, went on television and announced that he, the Mafia, and United States government acted together to kill Dr. King.

The King family filed a lawsuit against Jowers and unnamed collaborators for the assassination. The suit implied government involvement but did not provide specific details. Despite this, the jury (six African-Americans and six whites) found Jowers and his unknown (government) co-defendants guilty as charged.

Because of Jowers’ inability to keep his story straight, each time he recollected, the past changed as did the characters involved. Jowers’ sister came forward to testify that her brother stood to make $300,000 by selling his version of the story to the press. She confessed, she agreed to lie and help him out because she could not pay her taxes and needed the cash.

James Earl Ray died in prison in 1998.

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations
The Audubon Ballroom stage after the murder. Circles on backdrop mark bullet holes. Public Domain

Malcolm X

Human rights activist and Muslim leader Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965. He was 39 years old. By then, the prominent leader had been traveling abroad to promote his ideas in Europe and Africa. When he adopted himself into the Nation of Islam in 1952, he became a proponent of their radical teachings. They included provocative ideas, including that white people, are devils and that blacks are the superior race. This was not altogether outlandish given segregation was still widely practiced throughout the United States.

Racial segregation was little more than an extension of suppression through slavery. Ideas that the Nation of Islam advocated were the same ideas being applied to blacks but superimposed on white society. Many in both white and black communities were distressed by Malcolm X’s statements when he spoke on behalf of the Nation of Islam. At least part of the shock had to come from the drastically contrasting messages coming from the African American leaders. Where Martin Luther King revered peace, Malcolm X revered violence.

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations
Malcolm X before a 1964 press conference, Public Domain

Malcolm X had a very different outlook on solutions being explored during the Civil Rights Movement. While some blacks in America looked for equal rights and the end of segregation, X wanted to take segregation another direction entirely. He wanted to enhance the space between blacks and whites. He proposed that blacks return to Africa. By 1964 however, X stepped away from the Nation of Islam claiming its inflexible teachings were too old and tired to promote changes needed. It was this break that ultimately would cost him his life.

Throughout 1964, tensions between X and the Nation of Islam intensified. X was forging a new path for himself. He sounded more diplomatic by incorporating ideas about “equality” into his speeches. He often ended his talks by saying that if things did not go their way, violence might be the answer. His appeal was grand. The Nation of Islam was so angered by his actions, one of the temples order his car be bombed. Death threats were inferred in interviews, and one minister of the Islam order said X should be beheaded. The FBI overheard death threats, and in 1965, Malcolm X announced during a meeting that the Nation of Islam were actively trying to kill him.

Two days later while giving a speech in Harlem, he was sabotaged. Using a sawed-off shotgun, an audience member shot X in the chest. Two more individuals from the audience stormed the stage wielding semi-automatic guns. An autopsy report concluded Malcolm X died from 21 bullet wounds to his body.

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations
A photo of Gavrilo Princip following his arrest.

Gavrilo Princip was a 19 years old when he assassinated the Archduke of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. Princip was born a Serb but grew up in Bosnia. There, he became a Bosnian nationalist through his membership with Mlada Bosna — Young Bosnia. The group’s purpose was to unify Bosnia. This was not an easy task.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

A plan was hatched to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Franz was being given control over Austrian acquired territories in Bosnia. Killing him was part of a plan. If things went well, Bosnia would be released from Austria’s clutches. The idea was that the Balkans would fight Austria. They did not necessarily calculate the likely-hood of their assassination attempt as a trigger for setting World War into motion.

Gavrilo Princip was one of six nationalist sent on a mission to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. Franz and his wife were arriving in the morning by train. The six assassins, including Gavrilo, were given different instructions. At one place along the Archdukes route, one of the six nationalists would use a bomb. In another place, a hand grenade, and so on.

20th Century’s 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations

It was by chance that none of the plotted attempts worked. When the Archduke and his wife were within firing range, Gavrilo aimed his gun and delivered a fatal blow to each of them. Unlike his companions whose attempts failed, the small, determined 19 years old was successful. As the story unfolds, six conspirators lined the route. Each kept enough distance between himself and the other five assassins as to increase their chances of success. Their instructions were straight forward. Each was to attempt to kill Franz Ferdinand when in the procession of cars, his reached the assassins position.

The car first passed, Muhamed Mehmedbašić who was beside the Austro-Hungarian Bank. It was from that postion he was planning to launch a bomb attack. As the Royal car approached, fear overtook him. Some minutes later at 10:15, the parade passed the police headquarters. Nedeljko Čabrinović did not hesitate. He tossed a hand grenade towards the Archduke’s car whose driver realized they were under siege, hasten to move the automobile. The bomb had a 10-second delay and exploded under the wheel of the fourth car in the six car procession. It exploded, wounding those inside.

The crowd of spectators reacted, and chaos erupted on the streets. The remaining assassins would decide whether to flee or continue with their mission, making split second decisions within the thunderstorm of confusion that has been unleashed. Princip held his position. He was next to Moritz Schiller’s café. Having taken a wrong turn, the Archdukes’s car drove past. The driver abruptly brought the car to a stop. While placing it in reverse to correct the turning error, the engine stalled. Princip stood before an open window of opportunity. From five feet away was the Archduke and his wife. Princip did not hesitate. He drew his gun and squeezed off two shots. One for the Archduke and one for his wife.