A tooth will change hands during a solemn ceremony in Brussels this month. It is to become the centerpiece of a grand mausoleum in Africa. Soon it may be the most revered tooth in the world. It is also the quintessential Cold War-era artifact.
This tooth comprises the entire mortal remains of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, who was executed by firing squad on Jan. 17, 1961. Lumumba was a dazzling world figure, a passionate anticolonialist adored by millions. To ensure that all trace of him disappeared, his Belgian and Congolese executioners dissolved his body in acid. Now, in a bizarre twist to this already gruesome story, it turns out that a member of the firing squad, a Belgian officer, picked up one of Lumumba’s teeth and brought it home as a souvenir. It will be returned to his family and brought back to the Congo, where it will be carried to cathartic “national funerals” around the country.
Lumumba led his newly independent country for less than three months, but his life after death has been astonishing. His image resonates across Africa and beyond in film, literature, music, and all forms of popular art. Lumumba is one of three visionaries who died violently during the 1960s and have since passed into myth. Like the other two, John F. Kennedy and Che Guevara, he has come to embody not simply an era but an idea. In the foggy rearview mirror of history, we see these three as hero-martyrs cut down as they tried to make the world a better place.
Half a century later, Lumumba, Kennedy, and Guevara are the most widely venerated victims of a turbulent era. Why? How did they become immortal? What is it about these three — or our image of them — that so fascinates us?
Heroes emerge because they embody, or are said to embody, a virtue that we prize. In the case of Lumumba, Kennedy, and Guevara, that virtue is idealism. Admiring them is a way to recall an era filled with hope. The darker our world becomes, the nobler they seem.
Lumumba’s defiant speech on June 30, 1960, Congolese Independence Day, is justifiably famous. His call for “economic justice” and an “independent and sovereign Congo” thrilled Congolese but terrified great world powers. Immensely valuable mines and other resources were at stake. The CIA, fearing that Lumumba would become “the Castro of Africa,” sent an officer to the Congo carrying poison intended to kill him. Belgium dispatched a military squad. Together the two services arranged for Lumumba to be deposed, replaced by an army typist named Joseph Mobutu — later to be known as Mobutu Sese Seko — and executed.
Destroying his body was supposed to erase him from history. It didn’t. The editor of a new book called “Lumumba in the Arts,” Matthias De Groof, reports that “he lives on as idea, meme, symbol, icon, model, logo, metonym, specter, image, figure, and projection.”
President Kennedy was shocked by news of Lumumba’s murder when it was announced a few weeks after his inauguration. According to Jacques Lowe, the White House photographer who took a picture of Kennedy at this moment, “his hand went to his head in utter despair, ‘Oh, no,’ I heard him groan. . . . Kennedy’s attitude towards Black Africa was that many who were considered leftists were in fact nationalists and patriots, anti-West because of years of colonialization.” To many Americans in the early 1960s, and to millions around the world, Kennedy represented the possibilities of a new age. His sympathy for Lumumba seemed to reflect sympathy for the oppressed. So did his commitment, in a speech at the American University five months before his death, to “the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and build a better life for their children.”
There was a dark side to Kennedy and his presidency. He escalated the war in Vietnam, tried to crush the Cuban revolution, and led a reckless private life. Nonetheless, he is fervently admired around the world. His life and death are the subject of 40,000 books. Countless men and women around the world have been drawn to public service by his example. Kennedy was president for less than three years, but he left an indelible mark on the global imagination.
The last figure in this 1960s triumvirate whose lives ended in gunfire, Che Guevara, has passed into legend just as fully as the other two. Thanks to a couple of classic photographs, his face is recognized around the world. He has morphed from steely-eyed jailer and Communist apparatchik to the ultimate paragon of romantic self-sacrifice. Like Lumumba, he was tracked and killed in an operation directed partly by the CIA, which adds to his pedigree as a victim of dark forces.
Guevara helped Fidel Castro win his guerrilla war in Cuba, but after the victory he was restless. He quit his government posts and set out to foment revolution elsewhere. Inspired by Lumumba’s example, he traveled to the Congo with the goal of overthrowing the regime and restoring Lumumba-style government. He failed utterly. His calls for armed revolution in Latin America led many naïve young people to their deaths. In 1967 he was captured and executed while leading a pathetically incompetent effort to overthrow the government of Bolivia. Yet today, his canonization is complete. His legacy of selfless altruism survives alongside his ubiquity as a commercial icon and pop-culture star.
Lumumba is the ultimate symbol of the Global South and its confrontation with colonial power. Kennedy personifies the promise of electoral politics in democratic societies. Guevara represents the ancient tradition of revolution. All three were enormously charismatic, able to attract followers and transfix crowds. The shocking circumstances of their deaths, along with the odious nature of their enemies, add luster to their sacrifice. Looming behind all of this is the inevitable question of what might have been. We can hardly help wondering what these three visionaries might have gone on to accomplish if they had not been cut down in the bloom of youth.
In our fantasies, all three would have lived world-shaping lives devoted to the causes of peace, freedom, and global justice. Maybe they would have, but it’s just as easy to imagine the opposite. Since many leaders in post-independence Africa degenerated into corruption and tyranny, it’s not far-fetched to imagine the same thing happening to Lumumba. If Kennedy had been reelected, he might well have continued escalating the Vietnam War and become the hated target of generational rebellion. If Guevara had escaped, he would probably have continued urging young Latin Americans to embrace suicidal Marxist revolution. But their early deaths froze them in time, at the moment when they were as physically beautiful as they were politically electrifying. That creates the rosy tint through which we view them today.
Lumumba, Kennedy, and Guevara could plausibly have been described as political failures while they lived, but that no longer matters. In death they have attained secular sainthood. Kennedy and Guevara have been honorably interred. Soon Lumumba — or at least his tooth — will also find dignified rest. From their graves, they tell us that it is right and good to struggle for a better world.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.