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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.