Ronald Reagan picture

Address to High School Students on Martin Lurther King, Jr.'s Birthday

January 15, 1987

Greetings. One of the joys of my current job has been getting to know America's young people. I've met you here at the White House, and everywhere I've traveled throughout this land—on campuses, in churches, on military bases—young people were there. Your idealism and confidence, your gusto for life, have been an energy source this not-so-young President has been able to tap. I'm proud of each of you and share your desire to ensure that when you're ready to make your mark—and that won't be many years from now—that our country is the free and opportunity land that God intended her to be.

I appreciate this chance to speak with you on this special day, the birthday of a man who contributed so much to our way of life. In a few days we'll be honoring his memory with a national holiday, a day for all citizens of all races to reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I hope each of you will take the time to do just that. His memory should serve not just as an inspiration to black Americans but to each and every one of us to stand firm for our principles and to strive to better ourselves and our country. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of a Baptist minister. He never reached his 40th birthday, yet during his short life span he touched the lives of every American and helped dismantle the legal vestiges of discrimination and racism. He was committed to seeing that our nation lived up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. Ours is a better country today; each of you has more potential, more opportunity, because of the hard work and courage of one remarkable individual.

To me, and probably to your parents, Dr. King is a vivid memory. However, to many of today's high school students he may be little more than a prominent person mentioned in history books. Well, not many of those people described in your history books have national holidays in their memory. Only two other Americans, Washington and Lincoln, are so honored. And just to set the record straight, I may be old, but there's no truth to the story that Abe Lincoln and I walked to school together back in Illinois. Seriously though, Lincoln may have been before my time, but I do remember Dr. King. Even those who had disagreements with Dr. King now recognize that the changes he helped bring about were right and, in the long run, made our country stronger. But the cleansing process is not easy. We needed such an individual to mobilize our people and organize a movement that would touch the conscience of our nation.

Today the job that Martin Luther King, Jr., started is ours to finish. We're counting on you, the young people of the United States, to have the courage and commitment to do what is right. As recent unfortunate events have demonstrated, we cannot be complacent about racism and bigotry. And I would challenge all of you to pledge yourselves to building an America where incidents of racial hatred do not happen, because racism has been banned not just from the law books but from the hearts of the people. You should accept nothing less than making yours a generation free of bigotry, intolerance, and discrimination. If I might be presumptuous enough to offer this suggestion: A good place to start, a tangible contribution each of you can make, is to be totally intolerant of racism anywhere around you. If someone, even a friend, uses an ugly word referring to another's race or religion, let's make it clear we won't put up with it. Racial, ethnic, or religious slurs are vulgar, mean spirited; and there is no place for them in a democratic and free America.

The future of this great country is certainly in your hands. Your leadership and moral standards will determine if the U.S.A. continues to serve as a beacon of hope and opportunity to all mankind. In a democracy like ours, it's not enough just to believe in something; we must get involved and speak out. Dr. King was one such citizen who spoke out, and he did it with such moral conviction that the whole Nation heard his plea. It was 24 years ago when he made one of the great orations of this or any century. I hope each of you've had a chance to hear this historic address. No one in political life could help but admire the talents and dedication of this man when, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, before a rally of over 250,000, he so eloquently spoke of his dream. He spoke of a dream that one day the sons of slaves and the sons of slaveowners might sit down at the table of brotherhood.

I couldn't help but think of that speech when I read about a unique gathering that took place in North Carolina. You may have read about it, too. Last August there was a reunion of people, white and black, who trace their ancestry to the Somerset Plantation, near Creswell, North Carolina. The memory of the evil that once was slavery was not and should not be forgotten. But for that day, as Dr. King dreamed, the descendants of slaves and of slaveowners broke bread and had fellowship together, showing the rest of us what good will is all about. The descendants of those families of Somerset have made many contributions to America—some in the quiet way of raising families and building their communities; others, like Clarence Blount, the majority leader of the Maryland State senate, made a mark in government service. There were those who did well in business; others were ministers, lawyers, or school principals. Some served in the military, side by side with the descendants of slaves and slaveowners; together they protected our country against foreign threats. And that's why freedom for all is so important. It unleashes the best in each of us. Limiting the rights of any citizen is limiting America.

Martin Luther King, Jr., helped tear down the institutions of racism that remained from the days of slavery—institutions that unconscionably limited black Americans, preventing them from achieving their best. He helped open doors that were bolted and pushed aside roadblocks to personal advancement. We still must remain vigilant that government policies do not intentionally or unintentionally stand in the way of the upward mobility of any citizen. Here again, this isn't just a job for government; it's a job for you. As young people, you can honor Dr. King today by making certain you try your hardest to take advantage of the great opportunities available to you. Certainly that includes being diligent in your studies, but it also means saying no to drugs and keeping clear of other temptations that will undermine your future.

I don't feel as if I can speak for him, but I'm certain Dr. King would also be proud of anything you do to reach out to others who might need some help in getting ahead. I hope each and every one of you will get involved in at least one project that helps others. There are clubs and associations, at school or church, which offer all of us a way to do some good. You may be surprised that by helping others you'll find how much you're also helping yourself by building your confidence and meeting wonderful people. One person I know who agrees with this is Bill Cosby. He's been so successful and has so much, yet he still thinks of others. Last month he gave a substantial contribution to Fisk University, one of America's historically black colleges. His generosity, his caring, is one of the things that makes him someone we admire, and not just for his talent. We all can't give as much as Bill Cosby, but there's something each one of us can contribute to our school, our community, to others in need. The students at Byng High School in Ada, Oklahoma, have a motto: "How do I know I can't accomplish my goals until I try." I think that's a bit of wisdom that all of us in and out of school should always remember.

I'd like to leave you on this special day with a story about a friend of mine who exemplifies the concern and the can-do spirit we're talking about. His name is Bill Lucas. Bill's parents died when he was a child, and he was raised in Harlem by a loving aunt who cared for him as her own. When he was in school his track team was up for the championship, and he was representing the team in the 3-mile race. On the first lap around the track he lost a shoe. Now, other runners might have quit. Bill kept going and finished that race with a foot bloody and torn, but he came in third. And those extra points for third place, added to the rest of the team's score, were just enough to win the championship for his school. Later in life this same spirit helped this man from such a humble background to go on and accomplish great things. He was a teacher, an investigator for the Civil Rights Commission, an FBI agent, and the executive officer of one of the largest counties in the United States. Last year he was a candidate for Governor of Michigan. And although he didn't win and become Michigan's first black Governor, Bill keeps moving ahead, doing his very best. And I can tell all of you, if America is a land of champions, it's because of people like Bill Lucas and because of people like you.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Let us honor him by living the kind of lives that will make this dream—his dream—a reality. I appreciate this chance to speak with you. I wish you all the very best. Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 2 p.m. from the Oval Office at the White House. His remarks were broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service to schools throughout the Nation.

Ronald Reagan, Address to High School Students on Martin Lurther King, Jr.'s Birthday Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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