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Public Papers - 1992

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

1992-01-17

Thank you for that warm welcome, and thank you, Mr. Hill. And let me just tell you, sir, how pleased I am to be a part of this program today. It's, of course, a pleasure to have flown down here and to be at the side of Coretta Scott King and all this wonderful King family, sitting here and here. It takes me back to a couple of other visits to this historic center that I've been privileged to make.

With me also today is one well-known to the Atlanta community, now well-known to the Nation, our Secretary of HHS, Dr. Lou Sullivan. He is doing a superb job for our Nation. And after he heard the successful, wonderful rendition of the Morehouse Glee Club, these guys that came and swept into Washington at the Kennedy Center Honors and carried the day in a magnificent national performance, after Lou heard them here today he now is claiming that he, too, was a member of the Morehouse Glee Club. [Laughter]

And when Maynard Jackson, the distinguished Mayor and my friend, heard them, he also claims to have been a member of the Morehouse Glee Club. It's the first time I've heard this. But nevertheless -- [laughter] -- I salute both of them, and both, one here in the city of Atlanta, one in Washington, and thus across the Nation, doing a wonderful job for our country.

Let me just say, flying down here with my dear friend Newt Gingrich, who is with us, a Member of the United States Congress, we talked about the center, and we talked about a lot of things of national interest. And then I said, ``Well, Newt, how's it going in Georgia?'' And he said, and I don't want to get him in trouble because this is a nonpartisan event, but he said, ``Governor Miller is doing an outstanding job for this State.'' And Zell, I'm very pleased to see you here, sir.

And Reverend Roberts, I appreciate those words. I do believe that you can't hold this job if you don't look to God for guidance. I feel strongly about that, and I appreciate those kind words of guidance in your invocation.

It is for me an honor to stand here at this living memorial in Martin Luther King's hometown, steps from his birthplace and his pulpit, to talk about the promise of his life. We all know of his eloquence: the letter from the Birmingham jail, and then no one will ever forget the ``I Have A Dream'' speech. They moved us with their hope and love and with the abiding faith that Dr. King had in the American people. What you have done, Coretta, if I may, with this glorious living memorial, serves to remind us of the courage with which Martin Luther King overcame hatred and mistrust. It's too easy for us, almost a quarter of a century after his death, to forget the loneliness of that struggle.

Think of the early days of the movement when organizers of the Montgomery bus boycott called him to be their leader. In his book, ``Stride Toward Freedom,'' he wrote of sitting alone at the kitchen table one night during the lonely time and saying aloud, ``I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.'' But almost at once his fear and his uncertainty began to melt away. An inner voice, as he called it, an inner voice spoke to him, and it told him to continue to do what he knew to be right. And because he could express what he knew with such passion and such eloquence, the American people awakened to the promise of civil rights for all.

And today, thanks in large part to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s work, we have a battery of laws dedicated to a colorblind America. We have a renewed commitment from Government to enforce the basic rights of its citizens. And I'm proud that two significant civil rights bills have become law since I was President: the ADA, the Americans with Disability Act, and the civil rights bill of '91. Perhaps most marvelous of all, there's been a sea change, there's been a change in the hearts of many Americans who set aside old stereotypes and old prejudices to embrace the values that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. beseeched us to embrace, the values of tolerance and decency and mutual respect.

At the heart of these values, as Dr. King knew, is the family. And I am struck, Mrs. King, by how often in our conversations together you have stressed the importance of family life. Barbara and I feel it in our own lives. And think of the problems that afflict so many American communities today, homelessness and crime and drugs. Yet, these are not so much isolated problems as symptoms of one great problem, and that's the decline of the family. For far too many of our children pass through life without the goals larger than themselves, without a sense of their own worth or the worth of others, without the values that only the love of a parent or a grandparent can instill.

Yesterday, purely coincidentally, I met with the mayors who lead the National League of Cities. And some were from great big cities like Los Angeles; Trenton, New Jersey. Some were from hamlets and tiny cities, Plano, Texas, a city of 3,000; another one in North Carolina. And some were Democrats, and some were Republicans. But every single one of them agreed -- they'd met before I met with them -- that the urban problems stem in large part from the weakening of the family. And this problem, this terrible weakening of family, is not just somebody else's problem. It demands something from each of us.

Martin Luther King taught us that each of us is called to serve, regardless of personal circumstances. And each of us can serve. On the last night of his life, before that terrible day in Memphis, Dr. King told a story that I do think of often -- visiting the Holy Land when he was a young man, with you, Coretta. Happened to travel the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the same road where the Good Samaritan stopped, the Bible teaches, to help a stranger. The road was rocky and full of blind curves. And as he traveled, Dr. King realized that the reason others failed to stop to help the stranger was that they were afraid. Others had asked themselves, ``If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?'' But the Good Samaritan asked himself, ``If I don't stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'' The joy of personal service is that it is open to all.

The other day I met with Magic Johnson in the Oval Office, and I was impressed with the way that he has now dedicated his life to others, not only to those with HIV but in educating those who are at risk. And he's been very honest, been very forthright about this tragic issue. He's out there right now teaching kids that lifestyle matters, lifestyle is important. He's admitting, ``Well, I made some terrible mistakes.'' Now he wants to get the message out.

I want to help. I want to use the bully pulpit of the White House, continue to use it for that same purpose, to speak out for strong research, to help people better understand the disease, and to speak out for a change of behavior.

Anyone who visits AIDS clinics, incidentally, as Barbara and I have done, can't help but be struck by the dedication, the selfless dedication, and Lou knows what I'm talking about, Dr. Sullivan does, of the countless doctors and the nurses and the researchers and the volunteers who understand the human face of AIDS.

When Barbara holds an AIDS baby in her arms, she's trying to express that same message, a message of compassion and service. There are so many ways to serve. With her interest in literacy, she's tried to impress upon people the importance of reading to kids, broadening their horizons, expanding their young minds. And it's important to remember that one of the first goals of the civil rights movement was as basic as can be: quality education for all. We've made enormous progress, thanks in large part to Martin Luther King, in removing the legal barriers that blocked progress for minority Americans.

But let's face it. Regrettably, other kinds of barriers remain. For instance, the dream of quality education remains an unfulfilled promise for too many of our children. And now, our America 2000 education program will help lift up those kids who have been left behind.

I want to stop here also to salute two great leaders in American education, Dr. Keith of Morehouse and Dr. Cole of Spelman. With leaders like this, we are, in a sense, inspiring new generations. And I also want to salute and honor Dr. Gloster, who was previously the head of this great institution represented here today not only by Dr. Sullivan but by these magnificent young people.

Yes, too much prejudice, racism and anti-Semitism, and blind hatred still exist in our land. Martin preached something different, but they still exist in our land. And as President, I'm trying and all of us must try and must pledge to root out bigotry wherever we find it. Speak out in whatever community you are. Every day, Mrs. King, you and your colleagues here at this center train young people that the way to counter hatred and ignorance and prejudice is peacefully, with nonviolence, with compassion, with love and service to others.

That is the honorable, noble continuation of your husband's work. He taught us the difference one man can make in a country dedicated to the ideals of brotherhood. He saw an America that was like the welcome table the spiritual speaks of, where all Americans can eat and never be hungry, drink and never be thirsty. With your continuing commitment and help, we will meet these great challenges and make real the dream of Martin Luther King.

Thank you all very much. Now it is my honor for the United States of America to sign this proclamation. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 10:29 a.m. in Freedom Hall at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center. In his remarks, he referred to Jesse Hill, Jr., chairman of the board, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center; Rev. Joseph L. Roberts, Jr., senior pastor, Ebenezer Baptist Church; Leroy Keith, Jr., and Hugh M. Gloster, president and former president, Morehouse College; and Johnetta B. Cole, president, Spelman College. The proclamation is listed in Appendix E at the end of this volume.

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