How the X-Files reminded me of the meaning of Martin Luther King Jr.

Today was my second official celebration (with a day off from work as a holiday) of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. (I wrote last year on my first official celebration.)

For today, I not only reread MLK’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham jail” as I do annually, but also rewatched my single favorite X-Files episode, “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” from 1997.

Quite unexpectedly, this hilariously entertaining yet dark and sad episode of the TV series made a deep impression on my mind when I saw it almost twenty years ago.

MLK in the X-files episode (warning: spoilers!!)

If you haven’t watched this old 1997 episode of the X-files before you might want to go and watch it before reading any further. If you already have watched it or don’t care, here’s an unofficial transcript.

Basically, this episode is a Forrest Gump inspired look back at history, in which the infamous “smoking man” character is revealed (or is he?) to have had a history involving having a father who was an executed communist spy, but he himself grows up into a young man devoted to working covertly to defeat perceived threats to America. According to the story as it unfolds in this episode, the smoking man personally assassinated both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

What made the part about assassinating MLK poignant was that he respected MLK, and decided to eliminate him because of a speech by MLK he heard on his radio against the Vietnam War.

The smoking man says:

“If this were only a civil rights issue, I’d vote for a King/Benjamin Spock presidential ticket. But after last night, it’s not… I respect King. He’s an extraordinary man. But now he’s talking like a Maoist… And if he convinces Negroes not to fight in Vietnam, we’ll lose… and the first domino will have fallen.”

MLK’s 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”

Here is a transcript of the actual speech that so angered and saddened the X-Files smoking man (and in real history, a whole lot of people).

An excerpt used in the X-Files episode: “It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

Here’s audio of MLK himself speaking:

What the US and world were like in 1997

When I was watching this episode in 1997, I had been in a state of apathy and disappointment in the legacy of MLK for a number of years, partially thanks to having watched Spike Lee’s 1992 film “Malcolm X” and then gone on to read the 1965 “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”. I had come to get the impression that MLK had failed, because he was too “soft”, and Malcolm X was “tougher”. Note that the 1990s was a dark time, as the Rodney King beating was in 1991 and the LA riots were in 1992. And the Bosnian War 1992-1995 was fresh in my memory, illustrating that the end of the Cold War in 1991 was just the beginning of a falling apart of the former Eastern Bloc. So the 1990s were a time when I wondered what had gone wrong, not only in America, but in the whole world.

Somehow, revisiting MLK by accident through this X-Files episode, I returned to thinking that I wished MLK had lived much longer. It felt to me that he was only starting his global work when he was shut down. Yet, as long as his words remain, and are not forgotten, there may be hope. Not so much the overexposed 1963 words like “I have a dream”, but the 1967 words against the American war on Vietnam.


That’s why, when 2003 came around, with the beginning of the Iraq War, I felt angry and sad, and remembered that X-Files episode. I knew that MLK would have warned against the Iraq War as well. Was there any way he could have stopped it? Or would he have been eliminated, again?


Every year, I will continue to renew my memory of and my understanding of what MLK did in his life and what he was in the middle of doing when he was murdered.

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