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Is There Still A Dream?
Published on Wednesday, April 6, 2005 by
Is There Still A Dream?
by Steven Laffoley
As we mark the anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination nearly forty years ago, we might ask ourselves: is there still a dream?

Earlier this week, I found myself thinking of Martin Luther King, and of this question, not because the press was busy remembering the famed civil rights activist - and the anniversary of his assassination - but rather because the press was so silent.

In fact, under the circumstances, it was strikingly silent.

Why "under the circumstances"? Well, Americans are still fighting an unjust war, still engaged in ugly racism, still negatively redefining the idea of civil rights. And so, given the nature of our times, we might have expected our free press, on this dark anniversary, to present a serious, sober, self-examination. We might have expected them to make a poignant reference to Martin Luther King's dream of peace and human justice - and ask how far we have come.

But there was nothing. Nothing on CNN. Nothing on the "fair and balanced" Fox News. Nothing even in the "liberal" New York Times.

Well, almost nothing.

The New York Times did carry one story on April 4 about Martin Luther King - sort of. Buried deep in the paper, the Times reported the following "news": the autopsy videotape of King's assassin, James Earl Ray, is for sale.

Ray's brother, Jerry Ray, is selling the taped autopsy of his brother - some two hours long - for $400,000. With an eye to gruesome irony, Jerry Ray even made his sales pitch for the tape on the anniversary of King's death - while standing near the site of King's assassination.

So, on April 4, 2005, why was James Earl Ray remembered and Martin Luther King forgotten?

Was it that the anniversary of the assassination is just considered historical trivia lost in real news: the death of a Pope? Or was it that Martin Luther King, and his demanding message of peace and hope, is irrelevant.

Consider: in this past election year, for the first time in a generation, conservative republicans no longer felt the need to show forced deference to African Americans. What was the result of George W. Bush ignoring the NAACP? Likely, more votes.

So, why is James Earl Ray of interest and Martin Luther King irrelevant?

Is it that the public prefers to look - literally - into the dark heart of a murderous racist rather than look into the dark heart of America's failure to understand Dr. King's vision of peace and social justice? Does our reality-television culture finally mirror the shallow, meaningless world in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World?

Or is it that being our brother's keeper - as Dr. King relentlessly reminded us - is out of fashion? After all, American culture today is more in tune with the fiery rhetoric of the early Malcolm X. But even here, our cultural fascination with meaningless violence has removed Malcolm's angry words from their historical context and forgotten Malcolm's move toward conciliation later in life - we are left with Malcolm X as godfather to Gangsta rap.

Or is it that Americans are weary of collective social ideals - and they just don't care anymore? The ultimate celebration of self-interested individualism. The Reagan revolution finally realized.

Does the angry, individualist thuggery of James Earl Ray have more to say to this America than the collective dream of a hopeful idealist?

Or is it, quite simply, that Americans are ashamed?

No one wants to remember King and his message, because his words cut too close to the truth. Consider his words, written in 1958: "To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor."

How many of us would wither under that judgment? How many of us - by our resignation with, or loss of interest in, or our short attention span for, this illegal, immoral war in Iraq - would accept that we are tacitly "cooperating with the system"?

Not enough of us.

"I have a dream." Martin Luther King once said, "that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Nearly forty years after Martin Luther King's assassination, we should be soberly asking ourselves: is there still a dream?

The answer would say much about America.

Steven Laffoley is an American writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. You can e-mail him at or


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