Jimmy Carter photo

Address on Race Relations at Martin Luther King Hospital in Los Angeles, California

June 01, 1976

We are here today to honor a man with a dream.

We are here to honor a man who lived and died for the cause of human brotherhood.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the conscience of his generation.

He was a doctor to a sick society.

He was a prophet of a new and better America.

He was a southerner, a black man, who in his too-short life stood with Presidents and kings, and was honored around the world, but who never forgot the poor people, the oppressed people, who were his brothers and sisters and from whom he drew his strength.

He was the man, more than any other of this generation, who gazed upon the great wall of segregation and saw that it could be destroyed by the power of love.

I sometimes think that a southerner of my generation can most fully understand the meaning and the impact of Martin Luther King's life.

He and I grew up in the same South, he the son of a clergyman, I the son of a fanner. We both knew, from opposite sides, the invisible wall of racial segregation.

The official rule then was "separate but equal," but in truth we were neither—not separate, not equal.

When I was a boy, almost all my playmates were black. We worked in the fields together, and hunted and fished and swam together, but when it was time for church or for school, we went our separate ways, without really understanding why.

Our lives were dominated by unspoken, unwritten, but powerful rules, rules that were almost never challenged.

A few people challenged them, not in politics, but in die way they lived their lives. My mother was one of those people. She was a nurse. She would work twelve hours a day and then come home and care for her family and minister to the people of our little community, both black and white.

My mother knew no color line. Her black friends were just as welcome in her home as her white friends, a fact that shocked some people, sometimes even my father, who was very conventional in his views on race.

I left Georgia in 1943 and went off to the Navy and by the time I returned home ten years later, the South and the nation had begun to change.

The change was slow and painful. After the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, the wrong kind of politicians stirred up angry resistance, and little towns like mine were tom apart by fear and resentment.

Yet the change was coming. Across the South, courageous young black students demanded service at segregated lunch counters. And in the end they prevailed.

In Montgomery, a woman named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus0 a young clergyman named Martin Luther King joined the protest, and a movement had found its leader.

In 1961, we had a new President, John Kennedy, who responded to the demands of the civil rights movement, and who used the power of his office to enforce court orders at the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi, and who by the last year of his life was giving moral leadership in the struggle for equal rights.

In August of 1963 Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and told a quarter of a million people of his dream for America.

"I have a dream," he said. "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

"I have a dream," he said, "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream."

And so the dream was bom. The challenge was made. The rest was up to America.

Three months after Dr. King's speech, President Kennedy was dead, and we had a new President, a Texan, a man whom many black people distrusted. But soon Lyndon Johnson stood before the Congress of the United States and promised, "We shall overcome!"

Lyndon Johnson carried forward the dream of equality. He used his political genius to pass the Voting Rights BiU, a bill that was the best thing that happened to the South in my lifetime. The Voting Rights Act did not just guarantee the vote for black people. It liberated the South, both black and white. It made it possible for the South to come out of the past and into the mainstream of American politics.

It made it possible for a southerner to stand before you this evening as a serious candidate for President of the United States.

But war came, and destroyed Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Martin Luther King spoke out against that war. There were those who told him to keep silent, who told him he would undercut his prestige if he opposed the war, but he followed his conscience and spoke his mind.

Then, in the spring of 1968, he went to Memphis to help the garbage workers get a decent wage, to help the men who did the dirtiest job for the lowest pay, and while he was there he was shot and killed.

But his dream lives on.

Perhaps some of you remember the night of Dr. King's death. Robert Kennedy was in Indianapolis, running for President, speaking before a black audience. At that point, on that awful night, Robert Kennedy was perhaps the only white politician in America who could have spoken to black people and been listened to.

Let me tell you what he said.

He said, "What we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred, what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."

Those words are still true today.

We lost Martin Luther King.

We lost Robert Kennedy.

We lost the election that year to men who governed without love or laughter, to men who promised law and order and gave us crime and oppression.

But the dream lived on.

It could be slowed, but never stopped.

In Atlanta, a young man named Andrew Young, who had been Martin Luther King's strong right hand, was elected to the Congress of the United States.

All over America, black men and women were carrying the dream forward into politics.

In Georgia, when I was governor, we appointed black people to jobs and judgeships they had never held before, and one day we hung a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., in our State Capitol.

There were protests, but they didn't matter. Inside our State Capitol, Coretta King and Daddy King and Andy Young and I and hundreds of others joined hands and sang "We Shall Overcome."

And we shall.

I stand before you, a candidate for President, a man whose life has been lifted, as yours have been, by the dream of Martin Luther King.

When I started to run for President, there were those whe said I would fail, because I am from the South.

But I thought they were wrong. I thought the South was changing and America was changing, I thought the dream was taking hold.

And I ran for President throughout our nation.

We have won in the South, and we have won in the North, and now we come to the West and we ask your help.

For all our progress, we still live in a land held back by oppression and injustice.

The few who are rich and powerful still makes the decisions, and the many who are poor and weak must suffer the consequences. If those in power make mistakes, it is not they or their families who lose their jobs or go on welfare or lack medical care or go to jail.

We still have poverty in the midst of plenty.

We still have far to go. We must give our government back to our people. The road will not be easy.

But we still have the dream, Martin Luther King's dream and your dream and my dream. The America we long for is still out there, somewhere ahead of us, waiting for us to find her.

I see an America poised not only at the brink of a new century, but at the dawn of a new era of honest, compassionate, responsive government.

I see an American government that has turned away from scandals and corruption and official cynicism and finally become as decent as our people.

I see an America with a tax system that does not steal from the poor and give to the rich.

I see an America with a job for every man and woman who can work, and a decent standard of living for those who cannot.

I see an America in which my child and your child and every child receives an education second to none in the world.

I see an American government that does not spy on its citizens or harass its citizens, but respects your dignity and your privacy and your right to be let alone.

I see an American foreign policy that is firm and consistent and generous, and that once again is a beacon for the hopes of the world.

I see an American President who does not govern by vetoes and negativism, but with vigor and vision and affirmative leadership, a President who is not isolated from our people, but feels their pain and shares their dreams and takes his strength from them.

I see an America in which Martin Luther King's dream is our national dream.

I see an America on the move again, united, its wounds healed, its head high, a diverse and vital nation, moving into its third century with confidence and competence and compassion, an America that lives up to the majesty of its Constitution and the simple decency of its people.

This is the America that I see, and that I am committed to as I run for President.

I ask your help.

You will always have mine.

Thank you.

Jimmy Carter, Address on Race Relations at Martin Luther King Hospital in Los Angeles, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347611

Simple Search of Our Archives