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Public Papers - 1989 - June

Remarks at a White House Ceremony Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act


Well, thank you for that warm reception, and welcome to the White House. We're just delighted that you joined us for this important occasion. And of course, I'm very pleased to see several of our Cabinet members here, leaders of the United States Congress here. I'm particularly pleased to see our Attorney General, Dick Thornburgh, and, I might say, Bill Lucas, a friend of mine of longstanding, our nominee at Justice -- both of whom, I can tell you, are fully committed to the vigorous enforcement of civil rights.

And I might say I am just delighted that, among others representing the fine work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we have their president, the Reverend Joseph Lowery, with us over here today. I don't know who the man sitting on his right is, but I'll try to -- [laughter]. Jesse [Jackson], you know the ground rules. [Laughter] But let me be very clear: I'm delighted you are here. It's most important that you be here today, too, sir.

We gather today not only to commemorate an anniversary but to celebrate a movement and to rededicate our efforts to the unfinished work of that movement. Some of America's mileposts are easy to date. In 1776, America invented itself, a nation founded upon an idea -- the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. And nearly a century later, our nation fought its bloodiest war that the promise of that Revolution might be extended to all people. But for many Americans, another hundred years were to pass before the promise would even begin to become a reality.

Like the first American Revolution, it began with the quiet courage of ordinary citizens. Perhaps it began on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her rightful place on a Birmingham bus. Or maybe, maybe it was October 1, 1962, when James Meredith took destiny into his hands and registered at the University of Mississippi. But by the summer of '64, the revolution had a name. It was called the civil rights movement, and that year marked a watershed for many Americans. The previous August had seen 250,000 gathered -- just beyond those windows -- to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaim a dream that was due every American. And the following year would see the march on Selma, and Watts would burn.

But in 1964, the debate raged. Good people with honorable intentions struggled with issues as old as the Republic and as young as the movement's leadership. The breakthrough came when the Senate finally invoked cloture, ending the longest debate in its history and a 74-day filibuster. And the result was a statutory package -- soon to be bolstered by voting rights and open housing legislation -- that stands as a landmark in the civil rights movement.

But it wasn't the year's only milepost. That same summer, the brutal murder of three young civil rights workers, so singularly appalling in its savagery, shocked the conscience of this nation and became critical to our country's progress on civil rights. Twenty-five years later, these mileposts are important symbols of how far we've come as a nation and reminders of how far we must still go.

It's appropriate today that we rededicate ourselves to that most American of dreams: a society in which individuals are judged not ``by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.'' That means vigilant and aggressive enforcement of all civil rights laws. It means the sensitive application of those laws when competing rights of innocent persons are at stake. The law cannot tolerate any discrimination, and my administration will not tolerate abuse of that principle.

And while celebrating our achievements and recommitting ourselves to their preservation, we must recognize that the full promise of the civil rights movement has still not been achieved. The hard lesson of the passing years is that it has not been enough to wage a war against the old forms of bigotry and inequality. The lives of the disadvantaged in this country are affected by economic barriers at least as much as by the remnants of legal discrimination. And for that reason, I continue to support affirmative action and minority outreach programs. And as I've stated before, we must move beyond the protection of rights to the creation of opportunity.

Creating opportunities for all Americans will require both public and private leadership. And it's time to move forward on a broader front. And we will be satisfied with nothing less than equal opportunity for all Americans and the removal of final barriers to self-reliance. And that's why -- that my administration has proposed new initiatives in education, the key to opportunity, to boost programs such as Head Start, merit schools, adult literacy and, of course, historically black colleges and universities. And we've asked Congress for emergency urban grants to help free our youth from a new form of enslavement: the slavery of drug addiction.

On other fronts, we're supporting landmark new legislation to extend the Nation's civil rights guarantees to those more than 36 million Americans with disabilities, bringing them into the mainstream of American society. And last week we added our voice to those calling for passage of the Hate Crimes Act. My administration's comprehensive crime package isn't just about law enforcement. Earlier this week, I spoke about the impediments to providing equal opportunities for women -- if a justifiable fear of violent crime leaves them concerned about walking to a campus library at night or reluctant to work late hours for fear of getting out of the parking lot safely.

And new programs in civil rights also means anticipating the future, a future in which more than 80 percent of those entering the work force will come from the ranks of women, minorities, and immigrants. The challenge of the future will not be just finding jobs for our people but, if you look at the demographics, finding people for our jobs.

And the work force of the future can also benefit from the unique abilities of persons with disabilities. The time-tested laws that give civil rights protections can and ought to be extended to persons with disabilities. This will involve, of course, a careful balance between the needs of persons with disabilities and the needs of business to make real progress towards opening the doors of the workplace.

In the 25 years since the summer of '64, we've seen much progress. It is time now to move forward on a broader front, to move forward into the century's final decade with a civil rights mission that fully embraces every deserving American, regardless of race -- whether women, children, or the aged; whether the disabled, the unemployed, or the homeless. And for all these reasons, I'm proud today to honor this year's anniversary by calling on Congress, respectfully, to join me in a new partnership to reauthorize the Civil Rights Commission, with the goal of launching a renewed civil rights mission.

Launching a civil rights mission that can keep pace with a fast-changing world and work force will require commitment, cooperation and, yes, creative thinking. And beyond government, and even beyond the private leadership of dedicated representatives such as those here in this room, achieving the long-delayed dream of civil rights for every citizen will require full support from our businesses, our schools, and families.

As President Kennedy proclaimed in a call to conscience when he proposed the landmark legislation in 1963, even the most comprehensive of laws could never meet the challenge of civil rights. The problem, he declared, ``must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country.'' And in this, I ask you and every American for a renewed commitment to this just cause.

And I thank you for coming to the White House today and for honoring the history of this movement -- a movement in which many of you here in this room today were in the very forefront of leadership for that movement. Thank you for coming. Now we've got some work to do in the 25 years ahead. Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:05 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

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