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Public Papers - 1990

Remarks on Signing the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday Proclamation

1990-01-09

Well, let me salute Dr. Hooks, the able head of the NAACP. And I see our Director, Bill Bennett, here, and many others. Connie Newman is here somewhere. I see Dorothy Height, Art Fletcher, and Josh Smith, and others. But I want to welcome you to the White House -- pardon the slight delay there -- and bemoan the fact that some of the young people that were to be here couldn't make it because of the bus schedules and the weather.

This is an event that celebrates the greatness of a man whose life and legacy helped set America free. I refer, of course, to Dr. Martin Luther King. He would have been 61 years old next Monday. Since 1986 this day has been a Federal holiday, and I will shortly sign this proclamation. But first, just a few words from the heart.

Most of you weren't born yet -- I was addressing myself to young people. I am going to have to modify that slightly, looking around. [Laughter] Certainly, the front row over here -- [laughter] -- but now, there's some that qualify. Let me rephrase it: Many of you weren't born yet when Dr. King was killed, and yet you know that his life was central to the story of America. Each day we write new chapters; and as we do, let us recall who Dr. King was, what he did, and what his lessons were. For you remain the trustees of all that he believed.

First, he was a crusader and an evangelist, bore the weight of a pioneer. He was a force against evil. His life was a metaphor for courage. His goal was an America where equality and opportunity could coexist and where goodness could prevail.

Next, what did he do? Well, he went to cities and towns, large and small, places like Selma and Birmingham and Montgomery -- wherever he was needed. And wherever he found hatred, he condemned it. Wherever there was bigotry, he assailed it. And wherever there was segregation, he defied it. He endured death threats and these obscene phone calls in the dead of the night, but he refused to be intimidated. And through his courage, Dr. King changed forever America for the better.

Finally, what did this man teach? Well, he preached ``love thy neighbor.'' He taught that before government there was man, and government arose to meet man's needs. He demanded rights central to all that's good about our country: the right of free expression; equal protection under the law; the right to vote as we choose; the right to think, dream, and worship as we please.

Those lessons did not die with Martin Luther King. But we must recall them daily, for while he did so much, there is much that remains to be done, in particular -- and I know how strongly Reverend Hooks feels about this -- particularly when we hear of bombings, obscene phone calls, hate mail. Each one of us must speak out. And there is no place for the baggage of bigotry in the United States of America.

Teddy Roosevelt called the Presidency the bully pulpit. Well, I will continue to use that pulpit, hopefully with sensitivity, always to denounce and work to bring to justice the bigots who stain this good and decent land. I am confident that Martin Luther King would support that goal, just as I know he would rejoice today that the civil rights anthem of ``We Shall Overcome'' has captured the hearts of millions as democracy begins to bloom in Eastern Europe.

And here at home, where Dr. King's call for nonviolent change is making America a better place -- here, too, his lessons live. We see them in our neighborhoods, in our churches and, yes, in students -- in you as students. But you are the dream that Dr. King spoke so movingly about. And you must fight for what he died for: a nation in which no one is left out. And I know you've made that fight your own.

For evidence, Darrell Webster, a graduate student at Catholic University, overcame a troubled childhood to mentor kids in his old neighborhood. Shavonna Brown, of Woodson Junior High, conquered a similar background to become a leader in her school. And then, Linda Lawson -- in an age where too many are choosing drugs, Linda's choice was different: she chose education, becoming valedictorian of her high school and, today, a junior at prestigious American University. And next semester she's going off to England to study. Darrell, Shavonna, Linda -- in a sense, I wish that Martin Luther King could see you now. For he often spoke of how education can spur excellence, and excellence, equality. He knew how higher learning could be the great uplifter, and he believed that education could help each American climb the ladder of self-respect and dignity.

And that's the lesson that I'd like to emphasize today: Take pride in what you've done, as I know Dr. King would. But remember, too, that we have not finished the work of making Martin Luther King's dream a reality for each child in America: that one day they would live in a nation where they were judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

So, let me address these closing remarks to you particularly, the students. Dr. King loved the young people of America, and so I wanted not only you to be here but others -- some of whom could not make it -- be here today. For while he's gone now, the children remain. And that, in essence, has become his legacy. For the youth have inherited his mantle and must help realize the dream. So, do right, as he would. Love justice, as he did every day of his life. And next Monday, of course, will be our special holiday. So, it is now my privilege to sign a proclamation naming January 15th of this year the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal holiday.

Thank you all very much for being with us. And could you join me when we do the signing?

Note: The President spoke at 10:03 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. In his opening remarks, he referred to Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; William J. Bennett, Director of National Drug Control Policy; Constance B. Newman, Director of the Office of Personnel Management; Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women; Arthur A. Fletcher, Vice Chairman of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation and former Assistant Secretary of Labor; and Joshua Smith, chairman of the NAACP Task Force on Quality Education. The proclamation is listed in Appendix E at the end of this volume.

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