THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary (Atlanta, Georgia) _________________________________________________________________ For Immediate Release January 15, 1996 REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT AT THE MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., ANNUAL COMMEMORATIVE SERVICE Ebenezer Baptist Church Atlanta, Georgia
1:00 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: I know that we have been here a long time -- but aren't you glad you came. (Applause.)
Dexter King, thank you for that fine introduction and for your leadership. Coretta King, thank you for your kind remarks and for the visits we've had today and all the ones we've had in the past; the other members of the King family who are here, and especially to our co-presiders. I'm glad they don't keep women out of the pulpit anymore, aren't you? (Applause.)
To Senator Coverdell; and my dear friend, Governor Miller; Mayor Campbell -- you can get back in the pulpit, I think, anytime you want; my longtime friend, Congressman John Lewis; and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney; Congressman Mfume, my dear friend, we wish you well on your new mission.
To all the ministers who are here and all others who spoke. Dr. Roberts, thank you for letting us come to this church.
I want to thank all those who came with me today, many from the White House, starting with the White House Chief of Staff and most of those who were referenced. And my good friend, Ernest Green; Bob Johnson of the Black Entertainment Network; and others who came.
I want to say so many things, and yet I think I should say so little, because I have already heard so much wisdom and humor -- (laughter) -- and passion, and music. I'm going to do a test when I get back on the airplane, when I go back to the back of the airplane. (Laughter.) I'm going to ask Weldon Latham and Bob Johnson and Ernie Green and all my staff members what they remembered about this long ceremony. Every one will remember you, young man -- (applause) -- because you remind us of what all this is all about. And you are a stern rebuke to the cynics who say we cannot do better.
I will remember something that the rest of you couldn't know, and that is that Coretta Scott King still has a beautiful voice and can hit all the high notes. (Applause.) I will remember this is the first time in my life I ever got to sing, "Lift Every Voice" and sing two days in a row because we sang it in church yesterday.
I will remember that the Mayor wants to be buried by a Southern preacher so he can stay on earth one more hour. (Laughter.) I remember that it was so cold in Washington Dick Gregory was willing to go to hell to get away from it. (Laughter.)
I will remember all this incredible music, and David Arnold, whom I had never heard before; and my friend and brother, Wintley Phipps, who can still bring tears to my eyes. For purely personal reasons, I will never forget the way you all stood when the Mayor mentioned my wife's name. And I thank you for that. (Applause.)
I will never forget my friend Governor Miller quoting Kris Kristofferson's song and thinking there's still a place for all us Southern rednecks in this church. (Laughter.)
I am glad to see my good friends. I see Edwin Moses and Sonny Walker out there; and those of us who are your fans, Mr. Fishburne, are glad to see you here. Thank you. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
I was sitting here thinking, as everyone else spoke and I kept marking things through my remarks, what might I say here? What would Dr. King say if he sort of showed up, sidled down the aisle? I think he would have enjoyed this, don't you? All the laughing, all the singing, all the wisdom, all the passion. I think he would have said, "Amen" when Congressman Mfume reminded us of that magnificent passage from Genesis -- you can kill the dreamer, but not the dream.
I think he'd be pretty proud of how far his hometown has come. The King Center is keeping the dream alive. Atlanta has more foreign corporations than any other American city headquartered here with this Mayor and that Police Chief and that Sheriff over there. (Applause.)
Less than 200 days from today, the whole world will be looking at Atlanta when the Olympics come. The city too busy to hate will be the city the world will see. I think he would like that.
You know, only three Americans have ever had a holiday named for them by the Congress. Two were presidents -- George Washington helped to create our union; Abraham Lincoln laid down his life to preserve it; Martin Luther King never held any elected office. But he is the third because he redeemed the moral purpose of the United States. He reminded us that since all of us are created equal -- and that's what the Constitution says -- all of us are equally entitled to the full benefits of American citizenship.
In this holiday we celebrate the life of a man who challenged us to face our flaws and to become a better nation; to use our great power in the service of peace and justice. That was his dream and that is the spirit of this holiday. And that is why it is a good thing that all over America this is a legal national holiday. It is altogether fitting that if we can lay down our labors for a little while once a year to think about how we started; and we lay down our labors a little while once a year to think about how we might have been torn apart but we stayed together; that we take one day a year to remember that we have to live by the spirit and letter of the Constitution of the United States.
When we were coming in here, Rodney Slater, who is now the Federal Highway Administrator, but was with me when I was Governor reminded me, Mrs. King, that 10 years ago today I sent, on an early morning, 30 young children from Arkansas to Atlanta to march in the parade. And those children thought they had died and gone to heaven. (Laughter.) They knew they were part of something that matters.
So if Dr. King were here today, how would he tell us that it matters? I just returned, as all of you know, from a visit to our brave men and women serving as peacekeepers in Bosnia. I think he'd be pleased by that, don't you? Our troops come from all parts of our country, from all racial and religious and ethnic groups. They comprise a diversity unmatched anywhere in the world. And, unfortunately, unmatched in any other organization in this country.
They are all committed to equal opportunity, equal responsibility and excellence. I wish all of you could have been with me walking down the lines reviewing the troops. First there's a little unit with a big captain who is 6'4", comes from an industrial city in the Middle West, from an Eastern European ethnic group. Next there's a unit captained by a young slip of a woman barely 5 feet tall, an African American woman bossing around all these big, hulking guys. Why? Because she was judged by her merits. Yes, they have an affirmative action program, but no one gets a job for which they are not competent. It was a beautiful thing to see. (Applause.)
But more important than the composition of the military is the mission on which they went -- a mission we can all identify with. Bosnia is a land that in the past has found strength in its diversity -- the Muslims; the Croats, who are Catholic, and the Serbs, who are Orthodox. They have flourished side by side in the past. Even though they prayed apart, they lived and worked together. They've been neighbors and friends and even family members.
In giving in to appeals, to primitive and blind hatred, those who started that awful war there were stepping back into an imagined, unreal past in which they say life has greater integrity and meaning -- when we define ourselves in terms of who we are not instead of who we are. Does that sound familiar to you? When we define ourselves by whom we can denigrate and debase, instead of those whom we can reach out to and embrace.
We American understand the challenges they're facing in Bosnia. We know it's hard to forge a community from many different groups. It's hard to lay down old hatreds and ancient biases. We also know, as that old Broadway song says, children have to be taught to hate.
I was thinking you all were making all those jokes about the bus and the airplane -- you know what I was thinking about? When I was a kid growing up in my hometown in Arkansas, I rode the city bus to school every day. It cost a nickel. I can still remember one day when I got on the bus I had four cents, and there was a bus stop in front of my house and one about a block behind my house; and I asked the bus driver if he'd let me off behind with four cents, and let me run up and get another penny and run down the front and give it to him. And he did. That was the old days. But I was a kid. I didn't -- I was so stupid, I thought the best place to sit was the back of the bus. They had to run me out of the back so other people could sit down who were supposed to be there. I thought I was supposed to be in the back of the bus. Children have to be taught to hate. We know about what they're going through in Bosnia.
Though our Founding Fathers celebrated in our documents the universal rights of man as being inherent in human nature, we actually started out with a Constitution that stated that slaves were not fully citizens; and by the language of the Constitution, therefore, not fully human.
We fought a Civil War over race and slavery. We lived through bitter days of lynchings and riots. Still today we struggle to overcome. But over time, Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy, others that helped us to see that history need not be our destiny. We can define ourselves by our hopes and not our fears. Most of all, we can understand that we are stronger. When we live and work together as a community, not as a swarm of isolated individuals or antagonistic groups, that is still the decision for America today.
In the great budget debate, I believe -- some disagree -- I believe we ought to balance the budget. We never had a permanent deficit until the 12 years before I became president. Deficits were things that we ran when we had recessions or great wars that required us to mobilize the energies of the country.
So we have to do it. But we have to balance the budget in a balanced way that recognizes that we are all in this together. That is the struggle of America's whole history. That is the mission in Bosnia. We know that we have to be liberated, not bound by the lessons of the past.
Dr. King said that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don't know each other. They don't know each other because they can't communicate with each other. They can't communicate with each other because they're separated from each other.
The sad lesson of our experience is that sometimes we can be standing next to one another and still be separated from each other, miles and miles away in our minds. Now, even if we seek to help others bridge their differences, we have to say today, and he would say to us, you've still got a ways to go yourselves.
We must be the world's drum major for peace. That's the role our troops and their allies from over 20 other countries, including countries that we were enemies with in the Cold War, are playing in Bosnia. That's what we're trying to do in helping the Catholics and Protestants get together in Northern Ireland. That's what we're trying to do in working with the Arabs and the Jews in the Middle East.
And I thank President King for his mention of my friend, Prime Minister Rabin. Like Dr. King, he gave his life in the struggle for peace. And like so many of you who took up Dr. King's torch, Shimon Peres and others have taken his torch up. I'm glad that the United States is working with them.
I'm proud that the United States has supported the reconciliation of the peoples of South Africa and the triumph of President Mandela and all of you who work with him. It has been an honor for us, not a burden.
If that is our role, to be drum majors for peace and justice around the world, surely, surely that must be our responsibility here at home.
We have much to be thankful for. Dexter King mentioned some things. I'm glad that in the last three years the crime rate and the welfare rolls and the food stamp rolls and the poverty rate and the teen pregnancy rate are all down. I'm proud of that. (Applause.)
But here's what I think Dr. King would say if he were giving this sermon in far more powerful and eloquent ways: You're doing better, but that's not nearly good enough. And don't do anything which will make it worse. Keep going in the right direction. There needs to be more peace and freedom on our streets. It is true that the murder rate had its biggest decline in 35 years last year. Hallelujah. It's also true a lot of innocent kids will get killed this year. We have to do better. There's still too much crime and violence and drugs in America, especially among our young people.
He would say, ask yourselves this question as you walk out of this church today: How can it be that the crime rate in America is down, but the crime rate among young people between the ages of 12 and 17 is up? Are they still out there raising themselves? What are you going to do about that? What are you going to do about that? (Applause.)
We have to continue to heal the racial divisions that still tear at our nation. We can't rest until there are no more hate crimes, no more racial violence. And until we have moved beyond those far more subtle, but still pervasive, racial divisions that keep us from becoming one nation under God. We have to be honest about where we are in this struggle. The job of ending discrimination in this country is not over. That's why I still believe we need the right kind of affirmative action. We can mend it, and some day we can end it. But we can't end it until everybody with a straight face can say there is no more discrimination on the basis of race. (Applause.) We must bring more peace to our public discourse, even when we passionately disagree.
We did a lot of laughing today, to some extent, at the expense of those who disagree with us. And that's okay, they laughed at me, too -- (laughter) -- and sometimes more. But let's remember, no matter how passionately Martin Luther King spoke about the wrongs he saw and the changes he advocated, he always, always spoke in the language of love and nonviolence and peace. (Applause.)
I remember when one of our clergy read that well-known, but never tired, passage from Corinthians. In the old King James version it used to say, "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now we know in part, but then we shall know even as we are known. And there abides faith, hope and charity, and the greatest of these is charity." Charity and love, in that sense, are the same thing -- charitable love, the understanding that even those who are totally different from us share a common human nature. And we all see through the glass darkly. Nobody has to whole truth. We should remember that, and we should ask them to.
And, finally, let me say I think he would say that this is going to be a great age of possibility, the 21st century. And many will do very well. The great issue is whether we will go into that age of possibility together or divided, whether America will be a society -- a great society -- where winners can take everything, or whether it will be an even greater society in which everyone has a chance to win.
If you think about the characteristics of this time, people care more about their racial and their ethnic identities. If that builds pride and self-esteem and gets people back to good values that we all share, it is a good thing. If it leads people to the Bosnian war or killing in Northern Ireland or a lack of resolution in South Africa or continued carnage in the Middle East or on our own streets, it is a bad thing.
If you look at this global marketplace, if it means that a poor child in inner city Atlanta or in rural Arkansas in the hills of the Ozarks can hook into a computer and get himself or herself into a research library in Australia and learn what's going on in the world; if people in the inner cities can use technology to learn things that they couldn't learn and to build businesses and hope and opportunity, that is a very good thing.
But if the global economy means that everywhere we have to have more inequality, more people thrown out of work, more people living without hope because those of us who are doing well won't set up the conditions in which everyone can win, it is not a good thing.
So the challenge of this time is to go forward together -- to go forward together. And every single one of us has a role to play.
Let me remind you that in 1994 I signed legislation which transformed Martin Luther King's birthday into a national day of service to reflect the life and legacy of Dr. King. I recently appointed a friend of Dr. King's and an advisor, former Senator Harris Wofford, to head our Corporation for National Service. He said the King holiday should be a day on, not a day off; a day of action, not a day of apathy; a day of responding to the community, not a day of rest and recreation. That's what we have tried to do.
Today, all across America, members of AmeriCorps, our national service organization, are working with grass-roots community volunteers to pull this country together, not to let it be divided. In Philadelphia, as we meet here, thousands of young people and their teachers are renovating homes for Habitat for Humanity, a project that started here in Georgia and has swept the whole world. In California, 2,300 young people are going to clean parks, remove graffiti, collect food and clothing for people who need it.
And as we stand here and sit here, right here in Atlanta, members of the national service corps are joining forces with a coalition of citizens to honor the memory of Martin Luther King by painting classrooms, working at their food bank, renovating a homeless shelter.
Every American can be a drum major for peace. Every American can be a voice for justice. Every American can be a servant in the never-ending work of building our American community and building a stronger and more united and more decent world.
As he said, "Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love." Because of all of you today, I leave with a heart more full of grace, a soul more generated by love. I thank you for that, and hope you feel the same way.
God bless you all. (Applause.)
END 1:22 P.M. EST