Assassination Jokes: How Funny Are They?





William Loren Katz is the author of The Black West, Black Indians and dozens of other U.S. history books, and has been affiliated with New York University since 1973. His website is: williamlkatz.com

Republican Governor Mike Huckabee at the American Rifle Association heard a backstage noise and joked that it was Senator Obama diving to the floor to avoid gunfire.

A week later came some less humorous imitators: Senator Clinton underscored her point that one never knows whether one's luck might take a fortuitous turn, by citing Robert Kennedy's assassination in June 1968, just two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The next day, an editorial cartoon of a squinty-eyed Senator Obama impaled on a sword, bearing the caption “My Own Words,” was featured in Pennsylvania's Wayne Independent. [1] That Sunday “fair and balanced” Fox TV News weighed in. As she signed off co-anchor Liz Trotta urged "that somebody knock off Osama, um, Obama -- well both, if we could." Good night and good luck, indeed. [2]

The obligatory back-steps followed. Huckabee apologized, Clinton expressed regrets to the Kennedy family (not to Obama and his family), and Trotta apologized "to anyone I offended." [3]

Mentioning the “A word” during any election season is no joke. Gunmen have ended the lives of four presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan narrowly escaped assassination attempts. Candidate Robert Kennedy was slain, and candidate George Wallace was so severely wounded that he abandoned his campaign.

With a Black candidate in the field, any assassination reference has a sinister ring that cannot be stilled by "regrets." After the Civil War dozens of southern African American office-holders and the white officials allied with them were slain by Ku Klux Klan nightriders. For a long time the perpretators persuaded northerners there was no organized terrorist movement, or that former slaves seeking sympathy were behind the atrocities. It took a relentless investigation by Lt. Lewis Merrill [7th Cavalry and stationed in York county, South Carolina] to unearth a vast, multi-class lethal white conspiracy -- and with daring help from the African American community -- begin prosecutions that cracked the KKK organization.

But in less than a dozen years unrelenting planter violence and intimidation had ended Lincoln's “new birth of freedom,” reversed acts of Congress and nullified three Constitutional Amendments. By 1877 under the slogan "restore home rule" northern businessmen had reached a comfortable alliance with the southern white supremacist rulers.

In the middle of the 20th century dozens of racist murders of white and African American civil rights workers aimed to again block justice and equality. And on a Sunday afternoon in 1965 Malcolm X, defying death threats and lacking police protection, died in a hail of bullets in New York City. If lynching is included, violent opposition to African Americans' pursuit of either public office or other citizenship rights has rolled up a body count in the thousands.

U.S. history proves the “A word” is deadly serious.

Today fear and death hang in the air. Thousands of U.S. soldiers have been killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Millions of civilians have been killed, wounded or displaced. The Republicans mock the idea of negotiation replacing military confrontation. And as candidate Obama's star has risen the “A word” has appeared. Is it a perverse, desperate plea for a “white hope?" Given the record, is it funny?

Related Links

  • Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore: Incitement to Assassination Has a Special Place in the History of Racism
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    [1] Wayne Independent, May 23, 2008, 4.

    [2] "Same Joke, More Regret," New York Times, May 27, 2008, 20A

    [3] Ibid.


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    William J. Stepp - 6/10/2008

    In the middle of the 20th century dozens of racist murders of white and African American civil rights workers aimed to again block justice and equality. And on a Sunday afternoon in 1965 Malcolm X, defying death threats and lacking police protection, died in a hail of bullets in New York City.

    Malcolm X was killed by a black man, so racism can't be blamed for that.


    Mark Reitz - 6/9/2008

    I agree that assassination joke are never funny, and are always in poor taste when directed against presidential candidates and sitting presidents. I believe the statement that "With a Black candidate in the field, any assaaination reference has a sinister ring that cannot be stilled by 'regrets'," is too limited. Regardless of the ethnicity or politics of the candidate, any death threats - whether jokes or later regretted - should not be voiced to begin with. This equally applies to those voicing such sentiments against President Bush, such as: Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear joking of a Bush assassination by Cheney on May 9, 2008; Senator John Kerry making an assassination joke about Bush in October 2006; and Nobel Peace Prize winner Betty Williams speaking of wishing she could “kill Bush” in a July 11, 2007, speech.

    Such statements do not become sinister only when a minority candidate is the subject.

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