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Presidential Medal of Freedom Remarks on Presenting the Medal to Dr. Jonas E. Salk and to Martin Luther King, Jr.

July 11, 1977

THE PRESIDENT. As you may know, the Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award that's given in our country. It was begun when President Truman was in the White House, and the number of people who receive it is very small.

There are many Americans who do great things, who make us proud of them and their achievements, and who inspire us to do better ourselves. But there are some among those noble achievers who are exemplary in every way, who reach a higher plateau of achievement, and whose recognition almost demands being consummated by someone in my own position.

Today I have chosen to honor two great men, one who has alleviated suffering and despair in the field of health and one who has chosen to alleviate suffering and despair in the field of human freedom.

I'm very grateful today to have this opportunity on behalf of more than 200 million Americans to recognize these noble recipients of the award, one in life, one in death, but we know that they both live now and a thousand years from now, perhaps, will still live in the minds and hearts of Americans.

I'd like to first call Dr. Jonas Salk forward to present an award to him and to read a citation.

[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows:]


Because of Dr. Jonas E. Salk, our country is free from the cruel epidemics of poliomyelitis that once struck almost yearly. Because of his tireless work, untold hundreds of thousands who might have been crippled are sound in body today. These are Doctor Salk's true honors, and there is no way to add to them. This Medal of Freedom can only express our gratitude, and our deepest thanks.

I'd like to give this to Mrs. Salk to deliver to her husband later. Thank you.

DR. SALK. Mr. President, you have drawn special attention to me for the successful control of poliomyelitis. Our freedom from fear of this disease is the result of years of work by a great many who preceded me and who followed. This freedom was achieved to the mutual participation of the public as well as the scientific and medical communities.

I am deeply moved to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom along with Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life and work contributed so richly to the ultimate freedoms we seek freedom from human exploitation and oppression. Our Founding Fathers spoke about the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but without freedom from oppression and from disease, the pursuit of happiness has little meaning.

I hope that all the world will see your own aspirations and commitments to life and to liberty, the world over, in the meaningful recognition that you have given to the importance of human rights and human health.

The achievements to which you have drawn attention serve as examples of more that might be accomplished through national and international commitments to improve the health and well-being of people everywhere.

Laurels are not to be rested upon. They crown what is valued and desired by society. They impose responsibility as well as offer encouragement.

In this spirit, I am pleased to accept the honor you bestow upon me and, in so doing, upon all those who work in the same vineyard toward improving the health and well-being of humankind. And I thank you, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT. When I was a child in Georgia. I, along with all other people, perhaps, in the world my age, were constantly fearful of the blight of a polio epidemic. In our own country alone in the years shortly before the Salk vaccine was developed, there were 52,000 people who were stricken with polio. And miraculously, because of the intelligence and commitment of Dr. Salk, this scourge was removed. And as he very generously described to us, many people before this achievement and since then have contributed as well to this alleviation of a constant threat.

When I was a child in Georgia, there was another threat as well which was even more all-encompassing and which afflicted us as did a physical disease, and that was racial discrimination, a deprivation of human freedom and a prohibition against the realization of the American dream for black people.

With unswerving dedication, superb courage, sensitivity, and humility and a dedication to peace, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., helped to remove this threat and this affliction. Although I never knew him personally, I've come to know the members of his family, and many thousands of people around the world now carry on his own deep commitments to which he gave his very life.

I'd like to ask Coretta King and Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., to come and stand beside me as I read this citation.

[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows:]


Martin Luther King, Jr., was the conscience of his generation. He gazed upon the great wall of segregation and saw that the power of love could bring it down. From the pain and exhaustion of his fight to fulfill the promises of our founding fathers for our humblest citizens, he wrung his eloquent statement of his dream for America. He made our nation stronger because he made it better. His dream sustains us yet.

Signed, Jimmy Carter.

MRS. King. Thank you, Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, to our many friends who have gathered here today:

This is indeed a very moving moment for me and, needless to say, a very fulfilling one for me and my family and our friends who have come here today to share this occasion with us.

It is highly significant that you, Mr. President, a white Southerner, would become the first American President to recognize the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s contributions to the human rights movement in this country and bestow upon him the highest civilian award--the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For us as a family and the millions in our Nation who believed in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s teaching, we are greatly encouraged and feel this action is indicative of the new spirit of reconciliation which you and your administration are causing in this Nation.

Thank you, Mr. President, for renewing our hopes that our Nation can rise to true greatness and give due honor to one of its greatest national heroes.

This medal will be displayed with Martin's Nobel Peace Prize in the completed Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Social Change, his official memorial in Atlanta, Georgia. It will serve as a continuous reminder and inspiration to young people and unborn generations that his dream of freedom, justice, and equality must be nurtured, protected, and fully realized, that they must be the keepers of the dream.

Let us all once again rededicate our lives to the fulfillment of Martin Luther King's dream, which was truly the American dream.

Thank you, Mr. President.

Note: The President spoke at 1:37 p.m. at the ceremony in Room 450 at the Old Executive Office Building.

Jimmy Carter, Presidential Medal of Freedom Remarks on Presenting the Medal to Dr. Jonas E. Salk and to Martin Luther King, Jr. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/244349

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