Jimmy Carter photo

Remarks on Signing Into Law Bills Establishing the Martin Luther King, Junior, and Boston African American National Historic Sites

October 10, 1980

THE PRESIDENT. To Coretta King and Representative McLin, to Byron Rushing, to Cecil Andrus, Secretary of Interior, to other men and women of our Nation, and also to young people as well who believe that quite often government, which moves slowly, can correct a long overdue omission in the social and educational development of our country, this is a very good occasion. The two bills that I will sign today represent a three-pronged effort to preserve a vital, but long neglected part of American heritage: the history and culture of Americans of African ancestry and their role in the history of our Nation.

First, I will sign a bill that designates and establishes the Martin Luther King, Junior, National Historic Site and Preservation District in Atlanta to preserve the area where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., lived and worked and worshiped and where he's buried, as a living memorial to the civil rights movement which he came to symbolize.

The second bill establishes a Boston African American National Historical Site, including the African-American Meeting House, which was the center of the 19th century free African American community on Beacon Hill. That bill also provides for the establishment of a national center for the study of Afro-American history and culture with headquarters in Wilberforce, Ohio.

Wilberforce University was founded in 1856 for the education of runaway slaves and free black people and has a proud history of service and distinguished faculty and also, obviously, distinguished alumni. It was named for the British abolitionist, William Wilberforce, who secured passage of the act ending the British slave trade and who worked for the worldwide abolition of slavery. These two historic sites will preserve for all Americans some of the physical surroundings of two important periods in the history of black Americans.

From the early days of our country, free black Americans had helped to gain freedom for the slaves by their writing, .their speeches, and direct action. They were an important force in arousing the conscience of our Nation to the evil of slavery that ate at the heart of our most 'fundamental principles.

The contributions of black Americans in all fields of human endeavor were largely forgotten or overlooked until just recent years to the detriment of all Americans. In this century, the writings, speeches, and direct action of black Americans culminating in the civil rights movement again aroused the conscience of all Americans to the evils of lingering discrimination that threaten to deny black people freedom, justice, and opportunity.

The creation of a national center for the study of Afro-American history and culture will give new impetus to the effort of many scholars and organizations to extend our knowledge and understanding of black experience in America and to make this heritage known to all our people. We must put the pain and prejudice of the past behind us, but in so doing, we must not deny ourselves the valuable lessons that can teach us or let the truth be lost to future generations.

If the truth is to set us free, we must study and to understand our own past and how it affects the present and the future. It is for this purpose that this national center is to be established. I hope the preservation of these sites and the creation of this center will provide all Americans with a new source of knowledge and inspiration at the same time they give black Americans new insights into their own roots.

Preserving some of these sites that were a part of these two great historic movements to free the slaves and the American civil rights movement in this century will help present and future generations appreciate not only the events of the past but the principles and dreams that gave these movements power and allowed them to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles. The Historic Preservation District in Atlanta will include the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change, which is dedicated to continuing the nonviolent struggle for justice and equal opportunity in this country and for human rights around the world.

It houses historic tapes and photographs that contain much of the record of the tragedy and the triumph of the civil rights movement, but it also speaks to what Dr. King called the "fierce urgency of now." He longed for the day when all people would be judged, and to quote him, "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." The character of future generations will be shaped by the understanding of the past and their ability to build on it a world where all people will be able, as in his dream, to join hands and to sing together "Free at Last."

And now I'd like to sign these two historic documents establishing centers and preserving sites where the black Americans were finally given freedom from slavery and, finally in our recent lifetime, to the courage and commitment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us what peace meant and let us remove the threat and the oppression of legal discrimination from our land.

The first act is designed to establish the Martin Luther King, Junior, National Historic Site in the State of Georgia and for other purposes.

[At this point, the President signed H.R. 7218.]

I forgot to ask Coretta if I should sign it or veto it. [Laughter]

MRS. KING. You did the right thing.

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I think that's a fine bill. Thank you very much.

I think before I sign the other act it might be good to let Coretta respond, if you don't mind.

MRS. KING. Thank you, Mr. President.

This is indeed an historic occasion for those of us who represent the family of Martin King. My son, Marty King-Martin III—is with me, members of the board of directors and trustees of Martin King Center—John Cox, Jeri Allen, Al Nellurn, and Pastor Joe Roberts of the Ebenezer Baptist Church—and all of the friends and supporters, representatives from the city of Atlanta, from the State of Georgia Liz Lyons, former Commissioner Gibson, two council persons, I believe, Rob Pitts and Arthur Langford, here—

THE PRESIDENT. Daddy King's here in spirit today.

MRS. KING. Daddy King is here in spirit—

THE PRESIDENT. He was going to be here, but he just couldn't make it.

MRS. KING. He couldn't make it. He had a little accident, but I think he's going to be all right.

We have members of the Park Service Committee, National Park Service, Mr. Brown, Dr. Janet Wolf, others. And Bill Whelan, former Director of the Park Service—I am especially pleased to see him, Mr. President, because he started early on with us, and Mr. Whelan went about this with great dedication, and we're just deeply appreciative.

Other members of the Park Service have been so helpful to us. Certainly Mr. Andrus, Secretary Andrus, and Assistant Secretary Deputy, Deputy Secretary Hutchinson—


MRS. KING. Director. [Laughter] I'm making you Secretary. I'm getting in trouble. [Laughter] Congressman Bereuter came down and saw the site and was extremely helpful to us, and we're just grateful that he could be here today and for all of the other friends and supporters of the Martin Luther King Center and those who are working to make the dream a reality.

I can assure you that this act, Mr. President, which you have signed today will be a tremendous inspiration and encouragement, but it also will help us to continue to develop the site, to develop the area where Martin grew up and to revitalize that total community, because we're concerned not only about the physical revitalization but the spiritual revitalization as well, creating the beloved community. Again, Martin King was concerned about a community, a city, a State, a nation, and a world where people could live together with feelings of security, equal opportunity, justice and peace. And I feel that this site is not only a symbolic representation of all that Martin stood for and the representation of his dream, but it is in fact a beginning where we can demonstrate what can happen in a small way. This will become a model community, I believe, Mr. President. We want to thank you.

THE PRESIDENT. Thank you very much. And, of course, the other bill is for the establishment of the Boston African American National Historic Site in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and of course, the Wilberforce Center, the National Center for the Study of Afro-American History and Culture. It's a great pleasure for me to do this. I know that in our lifetime we've seen the need for Americans to remember the exciting but sometimes torturous path that our country has played toward achieving equality of opportunity and realizing the dream that existed in the hearts and minds of those who founded this country. And I'm very glad to be present on this historic occasion.

[At this point, the President signed H.R. 7434.]

We've got two new laws now. I think Representative McLin might want to comment on the Wilberforce—

REPRESENTATIVE McLIN. Well, Mr. President, especially those of us in Ohio who have worked long and hard to try to get the National Museum Centers established, we appreciate it. I think this will be a lasting compository and repository for Afro-American history and culture; long we have needed such a place that we can have a center that we can place those historical items in. And on behalf of the Afro-American and Dr. Taylor and Dr. Newsom of both Central State and Wilberforce University, we want to thank you very much and Congress for carrying this law past.

Thank you very much.

THE PRESIDENT. Thank you very much, Representative McLin.

And now I'd like to ask Byron Rushing, the president of the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston, to say a word.

MR. RUSHING. In 1790, when the first census was taken in this country, Massachusetts was the only State in the Union that had no slaves, and so this community that we are preserving in this act is truly the oldest free black community in the United States. And the center part of the 16 sites that will be preserved by this act is the African Meeting House, which is now the oldest black church building still standing in the United States. For various reasons we are very proud that all of that happened in Boston, Massachusetts.

We're also very proud that our Congressman Joe Moakley and our Senator Paul Tsongas understood the importance of this legislation and moved very effectively to have it passed. We want to especially thank at this time, not only our own, of course, in-house supporters, our board members and all those people who love us dearly, but especially the staff of the National Park Service. And I think of two names that come out immediately, and that's Ira Hutchinson and Bob Nunn, who I don't think is here today, who just did a tremendous job in helping us in this legislation. And I want to thank you very much, Mr. President, for signing this.

THE PRESIDENT. Thank you very much. Well, I was going to call on Cecil Andrus to say a final word representing the administration, but as usual, he's quite modest. He does the work, shepherds the legislation through the Congress, works very closely with his subordinates in the Interior Department, also cooperates completely with private and public officials in the local and State government and with those who are interested in the improvement of our country. And I want to express my deep thanks to him, my confidence that in his Department, the true intent of the Congress and the highest ideals to these two bills will be carried out to the fullest. Cecil, thank you again along with those others assembled here.

Thank you very much, everybody. Have a good day.

Note: The President spoke at 3:35 p.m. in the Cabinet Room at the White House.

As enacted, H.R. 7218 is Public Law 96428, and H.R. 7434 is Public Law 96-430, both approved October 10.

Jimmy Carter, Remarks on Signing Into Law Bills Establishing the Martin Luther King, Junior, and Boston African American National Historic Sites Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/250919

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