On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated by James Earl Ray. Today we reflect on King’s tragic death, and look at seven other leaders and their notorious assassins whose heinous acts changed the face of history.
From the 1950s up until his death in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the Civil Rights Movement. Through non-violent protest, such as the historical March on Washington in 1963, King was able to bring attention to the social and economic injustices that African Americans faced. It was also through his leadership that he helped end legal segregation in the deep South. Because of his achievements and bravery, King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
But on April 4, 1968 a small-time crook and prison escapee named James Earl Ray took down the civil rights giant, shooting King from his motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. After fleeing the country, Ray was caught two months later and brought back to Memphis. He confessed to murdering King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Although he later recanted his confession and raised questions of a conspiracy (the King family eventually came to believe Ray had nothing to do with MLK’s murder), he was never able to secure a trial. Ray died in a Nashville maximum security prison in April 1998.
Here are seven other famous assassins who killed some of the world’s most distinguished political leaders.
World Leader: Julius Caesar
Assassin: Marcus Junius Brutus
With his victories in the Gallic Wars and the Great Roman Civil War adding to his increasing power, Julius Caesar declared himself dictator of Rome. His unparalleled militaristic leadership created immense friction with the Roman Senate who sensed their power waning. Led by Caesar’s friend Marcus Junius Brutus, a large group of senators stabbed Caesar to death on March 15, 44 B.C., which is also know as the “Ides of March.” After much political infighting and losing the battle in Philippi, Brutus committed suicide on October 42 B.C.
Caesar’s assassination famously plays out in William Shakespeare‘s tragedy Julius Caesar, in which he has the Roman emperor utter the words “Et tu, Brute?” (“You, too, Brutus?”) before he gasps his last breath.
World Leader: Abraham Lincoln
Assassin: John Wilkes Booth
Sympathetic to the Confederate cause, actor John Wilkes Booth murdered President Abraham Lincoln with his .44 caliber Deringer on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. After shooting Lincoln in the head at point-blank rage, Booth jumped onto the stage, raised a knife into the air and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants”) which was a line attributed to Brutus during Caesar’s assassination.
With the help of other conspirators, Booth had also been part of a failed plot to kill Lincoln’s successors, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. The group’s goal was to continue the Civil War, which had essentially ended four days prior with the surrender of the Confederate government. After the assassination, Booth escaped by horseback where he was eventually found hiding out in a Virginia barn. Refusing to surrender, he was shot by a Union soldier and died.
World Leader: Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria
Assassin: Gavrilo Princip
Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip was a trained terrorist from a young age. As tensions between Austria-Hungary and its southern Slav provinces were coming to a head — the latter wanted to form its own country (Serbia/Yugoslavia) — Princip found an opportunity to take things over the edge. Upon hearing that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria had planned on visiting Sarajevo in June 1914, Princip conspired with a group of fellow Slav nationalists to kill the Austrian-Hungarian leader.
Lining the route of Ferdinand’s motorcade, the conspirators waited with pistols and grenades. Although one car was blown up by a grenade, Ferdinand’s car escaped unscathed. But the archduke’s driver ended up making a fatal wrong turn and unknowingly drove straight towards Princip, who shot two bullets at the car, killing Ferdinand and his wife. Called “the shot heard round the world,” Princip’s assassination of Ferdinand was what ultimately started World War I. Princip was tried and convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In Yugoslavia, he’s considered a national hero.
World Leader: Nicholas II, the last Czar of Russia
Assassins: Bolshevik Firing Squad under the command of officer Yakov Yurovsky
With social and economic problems running rampant in Russia, thanks in part to the Czar’s involvement in World War I, and the public outrage over his violent tactics to suppress political uprisings like Bloody Sunday and the 1905 Revolution, Nicholas II became the last emperor of Russia.
Soon after the February Revolution of 1917, in which citizens rioted against the monarchy, Russian leader Vladimir Lenin gave his consent to the socialist political party, the Bolsheviks, to murder the Romanov Family, which took place between July 16-17, 1918. Eighty years to the day, the imperial family’s remains were recovered and re-interred in St. Petersburg. The Russian Orthodox Church would eventually recognize the family as martyred saints.
World Leader: Mahatma Gandhi
Assassin: Nathuram Godse
With his leadership and use of peaceful protest in the 1920s and 1940s, Mahatma Gandhi helped India achieve independence from Great Britain. However, Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse believed Gandhi was weakening the country by being too accommodating to Muslims and other minority groups. On January 30, 1948, while Gandhi went on his nightly walk in New Dehli, he approached the leader and shot him three times in the chest with a pistol. On November 8, 1949 Godse was sentenced to death, and despite Gandhi’s sons pleading to spare Godse’s life, he was executed by hanging a week later.
World Leader: John F. Kennedy
Assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald
A self-proclaimed Marxist, former U.S. marine Lee Harvey Oswald moved to the Soviet Union in 1959 but discovered life there didn’t match his ideological expectations. He returned to the U.S. in 1962, and after working various odd jobs, found himself living in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. He got a job at the Texas Schoolbook Depository, and it’s there on November 22, 1963, he shot President John F. Kennedy while his motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza.
Oswald’s murder of Kennedy is one of the most controversial assassinations in history. On November 24, as Oswald was being escorted through the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters, he was shot in the stomach by local nightclub owner Jack Ruby; he died two hours later. Whether Oswald was truly the lone gunman or just a patsy as he claimed, conspiracy theories involving multiple gunmen, the Mafia, CIA, and KGB abound.
World Leader: Malcolm X
Assassins: Talmadge Hayer (Thomas Hagan), Norman 3X Butler, Thomas 15X Johnson
While serving time in prison, a young Malcolm X converted to the Nation of Islam and quickly emerged as one of the most controversial political figures of the 1950s and 60s. Rejecting the Civil Rights Movement and MLK’s nonviolent approach to political change, the brash black leader preached racial separatism and black supremacy. However, by March 1964, X had become disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and eventually rejected it. His change of heart enraged the group, and on February 21, 1965 three of its members — Talmadge Hayer (Thomas Hagan), Norman 3X Butler, Thomas 15X Johnson — shot him to death while he was giving a speech in front of 400 people at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. Autopsy reports show 21 bullet wounds to his body.
In March 1966 the three men were convicted of Malcolm X’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Hayer confessed to killing X during trial but asserted Butler and Johnson were innocent. In 1985 Butler was paroled and became head of the Nation’s mosque in Harlem in the late 90s. While in prison, Johnson came to reject the Nation and converted to Sunni Islam. Released from prison in 1987, he died in 2009. Hayer was paroled in 2010.