Ronald Reagan picture

Radio Address to the Nation on the Anniversary of the Birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 15, 1983

My fellow Americans:

A few' hours from now in the East Room of the White House, I'll be hosting a reception honoring the memory of a man who played a truly historic role in expanding the freedom we enjoy in America.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born into a world where bigotry and racism still held sway. Before he died, he had touched the conscience of a nation and had contributed immeasurably to the human rights of black Americans. He was a man of character and a man of courage.

Early in his life, Martin Luther King learned the meaning of discrimination. He and his father—a distinguished minister in a large Baptist church—went to a shoe store and were told that they would have to go to the back of the store. To his credit, the father took his son and walked out, vowing as he went to fight against such racism and discrimination.

As Martin Luther King grew older, following his father's example, he studied, earned a college degree, and was ordained into the ministry. Racism was still widespread in the world in those days. In this country, which served in so many ways as an example of liberty, racial discrimination remained a tragic taint. Injustice held black Americans in a vice-like grip, making it harder for them to build a better life. Black Americans were forced into separate facilities. as they were bused past nearby schools to be put into segregated and sometimes inferior schools miles away. No matter how qualified for a job, they often knew they need not apply because their skin color, rather than their skills, might determine who filled the position. Roughly one-tenth of our people were forced to endure humiliating and degrading conditions. One such rule in one city required all blacks to sit in the back section of public buses.

But sometimes a single human act of courage can change the world. In 1955 a brave woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus. She was arrested. When the bus company refused to change the rule, a young minister in a local Baptist church, Martin Luther King, Jr., helped organize a boycott that captured the attention of the country. In 6 months, the courts had ruled the segregation of public transportation to be unconstitutional.

It was the first real test of Dr. King's nonviolent philosophy. He advocated nonviolence because he believed that with hard work and good will, people's hearts can be touched and progress can be made. Yet, progress is not easy. In his book, "The Strength To Love," Dr. King wrote, "Nothing pains some people more than having to think."

Well, during the years following the bus boycott, Dr. King, with tremendous courage and resourcefulness, got a lot of Americans thinking. He was instrumental in getting passage of legislation that provided Federal protection for the crown jewel of American liberty—every American's right to vote. That legacy still lives. Last year I signed into law the longest extension of the Voting Rights Act since its passage—a measure that will protect the right to vote for many years to come.

In 1964 Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—the youngest man ever to earn that high award. Through his actions, his teachings, and his deep dedication to nonviolence, he opened the eyes of his fellow citizens. Civil rights legislation was passed, but perhaps even more important, he awakened the moral sense of an entire nation. He appealed to the good that is in our people.

In 1968 Martin Luther King was brutally murdered, shot down by a cowardly assassin. He had remained true to his principles to the end, never succumbing to the hatred that had destroyed the effectiveness of lesser men. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he had held a great and peaceful civil rights rally. He spoke there of a dream—his dream for an America where there would be no place for hatred. His words are now a moving part of our history.

Had he lived, the man we honor on this day would be only 54 years old. He cannot be with us. But today in Atlanta, Vice President Bush is attending a gathering honoring his 83-year-old father who did so much to start his son on the road to achievement and martyrdom.

In honoring them both, we should look to the future as well as the past. Yes, we should be proud of the progress we've made. But we also must face the fact that 15 years after Martin Luther King's death, traces of bigotry and injustice still remain.

So, let the anniversary of this courageous American's birth be for us both a time of thanksgiving and a time of renewal. Let us be grateful for the providence that sends among us men and women with the courage and vision to stand peacefully but unyieldingly for what is right. But let us also make this a time when we rededicate ourselves, young and old, black and white to carry on the work of justice and to totally reject the words and actions of hate embodied in groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

Martin Luther King, Jr., showed us how much good a single life, well led, can accomplish. His death proved how much harm a single hand, intent on evil, can inflict. Let each of us honor his memory by pledging in our own lives to do everything we can to make America a place where his dream of freedom and brotherhood will grow and flourish from sea to shining sea.

If we do this, then his sacrifice will not have been in vain, and we will have helped to make our country the special place we all know in our hearts that it was meant to be.

Thank you for listening. God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 12:06 p.m. from the Oval Office at the White House.

Ronald Reagan, Radio Address to the Nation on the Anniversary of the Birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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