Bill Clinton photo

Remarks on the Observance of the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 17, 1994

Thank you very much. Thank you, Charles DeBose, for that fine introduction and, even more important, for the example that you have set by your service. I can think of no more significant tribute to the life and memory of Dr. King than what you are doing and what all the other young people who are involved in community and national service are doing throughout this country. I know a number of them are behind me here on the stage, and I want to thank them all.

Dr. Jenifer and Mrs. Jenifer, to Joyce Ladner and all the distinguished people here at Howard, I'm delighted to be back here again. I thank and honor the presence of all the civil rights leaders who are in the audience; three members of the Little Rock Nine, who helped to integrate Little Rock Central High School in my home State so many years ago; my good friend and the distinguished journalist, Charlayne Hunter-Gault; and members of my Cabinet here; presidents of other universities here; and other distinguished American citizens, all of whom have labored in the vineyard that produced Martin Luther King.

I want to say a special word, too, if I might at the outset, of appreciation for the fact that Howard provided the moment for me to remember again that in all great debates there should be some discord. When the president of the student body got up here, I thought to myself, well, we do have a responsibility to seek justice as we see it. And I was glad she was here doing that.

It was a year ago on this day that I last spoke at Howard, and I'm glad to be back on this day. Only three American citizens, one from each century of our history, are honored with a holiday of national scope. Two were Presidents, but the other never occupied any office, except the most important in our democracy: He was a citizen. George Washington helped to create our Union, Abraham Lincoln gave his life to preserve it, and Martin Luther King redeemed the moral purpose of our United States. Each in his own way, each in his own time, each three of these great Americans defined what it means to be an American, what citizenship requires, and what out Nation must become.

Dr. King, his family, and those who joined in his cause set in motion changes that will forever reverberate across America, across the lines of geography, class, and race. The people who are here today, those whom I've mentioned and those whom I did not, all of them reflect that stunning fact. They endured beatings; they risked death; they put their lives on the line. They marched when they were tired; they went to bed often without a place to sleep. They made the word "American" mean something unique because they, all of them, in a way were trying to get us to live by what we said we believed. For all of you who are very young here today, many of you who were not even born when Martin Luther King died, it may seem to you that the struggle was a very long time ago. But if you look around you, you can see that the history of that struggle is still alive today, still being written and still being made, still waiting to be fully redeemed.

I'm glad to be here at Howard today, and I'm glad that Howard and other historically black institutions of higher education are represented here by satellite and that all of them are working still to do what Martin Luther King knew must first be done: to give an education to all of our citizens without regard to their race. Howard's alumni alone include a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, a United States Senator, a Nobel laureate, the Mayor of our Nation's Capital, and at least, by my last count, at least 17 people who occupy important positions in my administration, including the Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy, who is here. For that, I say thank you.

It's also fitting that Howard's School of International Study is expanding, ready to educate a new generation of students about a rapidly changing and ever more integrated world. Dr. King would have been very pleased by that. His last speech, delivered the night before he was slain in Memphis, on April 3d, 1968, contained a prophetic message of hope about the world he saw evolving. He said he imagined himself standing at the beginning of time with a panoramic view of the whole of human history, with God Almighty saying to him, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" He then considered all the momentous history that would beckon someone of his enormous intellect and understanding, from the earliest civilizations to the Renaissance to the Emancipation Proclamation, but he said he would have said to the Lord, "If you allow me just to live a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy." He said, "That's a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up, but something is happening in the world. The masses are rising up, and wherever they are assembled today, the cry is always the same, ‘We want to be free."'

I think Dr. King would be gratified to see freedom's march today, gladdened to see what happened last September 13th when Prime Minister Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands and signed the Israel-PLO accord, overflowing with joy to see Nelson Mandela walk out of his jail cell after 27 years, working with a white South African President to set in motion genuine elections and then in good humor and with good spirit campaigning against him to be the leader of the country. This is an astonishing development.

Freedom is moving in the world. This past week, as all of you know, I traveled to Europe to help support freedom's rebirth there. I want to tell you a little bit about that, because it relates to what I want to say to you about what we must do here at home. My highest duty as our President is to keep our Nation secure. And the heart of our security abroad lies in our ties with Europe, in its past turmoils, its future promise.

For decades our security depended upon protecting a divided Europe. Europe was the center of two world wars which took more lives from the face of the Earth in less time than any two events in history. After the Second World War, Europe was divided, but war did not come again, in part because we protected the people on our side of the dividing line. But then the Berlin Wall came crashing down. People rose up and demanded their own freedom.

Now we have seen the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the end of communism in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet system itself, new elections being held all over what was the Soviet Union. Now, that is an astonishing thing. But these new democracies remain fragile. They offer us the hope of a peaceful future and new trading partners, new prosperity, new opportunities to enrich our own lives by learning from different cultures and ethnic groups. But they are still threatened by the explosive mix of old ethnic tensions and new economic hardships.

Russia has adopted a new democratic constitution and elected a Parliament freely for the first time to go with their popularly elected President. But the reformers are embattled there, as ordinary citizens struggle to understand how they can come out ahead in an economy which is still very hard for them and as they listen at election times to people who are calling them to an idyllic past that never existed, one based on division instead of unity.

The nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union, too many of them are still there, remaining a source of instability, of potential for accident, an invitation to terrorist diversion. We're working as hard as we can to dismantle them, and we're making remarkable progress. But they're still there.

We can't ignore these dangers to democracy. The best way to keep Europe from ever falling apart again, from dragging the young people of this country to that continent to fight and die again is to try to build for the first time in all of history a Europe that is integrated, integrated in a devotion to democracy, to free economies, and to the proposition that all these countries should respect one another's borders. That was the goal of my trip.

We made great strides. We offered—we in the NATO alliance that kept the world safe after World War II—we offered all these countries, all of them, the chance to be part of a new Partnership For Peace that does not divide Europe but unites it. We said, let's turn our swords into plowshares by planting together for our common security. Let's have a military exercise in Germany with an American general, with Poles and Czechs and Russians standing side by side and working together. Let's say we're going to write a whole new future for the world, different from its past. That is our great hope, and we made a good beginning.

We also sought to go country by country to bolster the new democracies, to tell people, look, there are always going to be problems in democracy and always going to be conflict. We just got a little of it today. [Laughter] I told them, I said, we've been at this for 200 years now, 200 years, and we didn't even give all of our citizens the right to vote until a generation ago. You've got to work at this. You've got to work at this, and you cannot be discouraged, and you cannot give up. And so I pledged to help the people who believe in democracy. And democracy means more than one thing. It means majority rule. It also means respect for minority and individual human rights.

And we worked hard to try to build better economic ties because America cannot prosper unless the world economy grows. We cannot, we cannot meet our obligations to the young people in this audience today unless we say to them, "If you work hard, you get an education, and you do what is right, you will have a job and an opportunity and a better life." We cannot do that. And to do that, we have to live in a world where all of us are working together to grow the economy. No rich country—and with all of our poverty, we are still a very rich country—none has succeeded in guaranteeing jobs and incomes to its people unless you always are finding more people to buy what you produce, your goods and your services. So I went to Europe because I think the trip will help to create jobs for the young people in this audience. And unless we can do that, our efforts are doomed to failure.

And so we had a remarkable trip: to build a more secure world; to build a more democratic world; to build a more economically prosperous world; to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons; and yesterday, with my meeting with the Syrian President in Switzerland, to try to keep moving the most historically troubled area of the world, the Middle East, toward a comprehensive peace.

But as I come home on this Martin Luther King Day from a trip that fought for democracy and economic progress and security, I have to ask myself: How are we doing on these things here at home? How are we doing on these things at home? If democracy is the involvement of all of our people and if it is making strength out of our diversity, if we want to say to the people in the troubled areas of Europe, "Put your ethnic hatreds behind you; take the differences, the religious differences, the racial differences, the ethnic differences of your people, and make them a strength in a global economy," surely we must do the same here.

In the last year, we've worked hard on that. Five of the members of my Cabinet are African-Americans. Sixty-one percent of the Federal judges I have appointed are either women or members of different racial minority groups. And they have also, I might add, been accounted the most highly qualified group of Federal judges ever nominated by a President of the United States.

In the last year, our economy has created more jobs in the private sector than in the previous 4 years combined. Unemployment is down; interest rates are down; investment is up. Millions of middle class Americans have refinanced their homes and started new businesses. All this is helping us to move in the right direction.

We are working hard to protect rights fought for and won. American workers should not fear for their jobs because of discrimination. Under the Labor Secretary, Bob Reich, the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance has collected more than $34.5 million in back pay and other financial remedies for the victims of racial discrimination. That is a big increase over the previous year. We have filed a record number of housing discrimination cases, a 35-percent increase over the previous year. We are working to fight against discrimination in lending, because if people can't borrow money, they can't start businesses and hire people and create jobs.

Just last week, in a coordinated effort strongly led by the HUD Secretary, Henry Cisneros, who would have been here today but is on his way to Los Angeles to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake, we ended an ugly chapter in discrimination in Vidor, Texas. Under the protection of Federal marshals, FBI agents, and the police, and with the support of the decent people who live there, a group of brave and determined African-Americans integrated at last Vidor's public housing.

Today I pledge to you continued and aggressive enforcement of the Fair Housing Act. In a few moments I will sign an Executive order that for the very first time puts the full weight of the Federal Government behind efforts to guarantee fair housing for everyone. We will tolerate no violations of every American's right for that housing opportunity.

But my fellow Americans, the absence of discrimination is not the same thing as the presence of opportunity. It is not the same thing as having the security you need to build your lives, your families, and your communities. So I say to you, it is our duty to continue the struggle that is not yet finished, to fight discrimination. We will, and we must. But it is not the same thing as the presence of opportunity.

That is the struggle they're dealing with in Russia today, in the other former Communist economies. They have the vote. It's exhilarating. But how long will it take for the vote to produce the results that democratic citizens everywhere want so that people will be rewarded for their work and can raise their families to live up to the fullest of their God-given abilities? That is our job here.

That's why this national service program is so important and why I was elated that Mr. DeBose was going to introduce me today, because national service is a part of our effort to create opportunity by building communities from the grassroots up and at the same time to give young people the opportunity to pay some of their costs of college education. And it is a part of the work that the Secretary of Education, who is here, has done to try to revolutionize the whole way we finance college education.

We know right now that 100 percent of the people need not only to graduate from high school but to have at least 2 years of education after high school in the global economy. We know it, but we're not organized for it. And so under the leadership of the Education Secretary and the Labor Secretary, our administration is working to set up a system to move all young people from high school to 2 years of further training while they're in the workplace, in the service, or in school. And we're doing our dead level best to make sure that the cost of a college education is never a deterrent to seizing it, by reorganizing the whole student loan program. Last year the Congress adopted our plan to reorganize the college loan program, to lower the interest rates, string out the repayments, require people to pay back as a percentage of the income they are earning when they get out, not just based on how much they borrow when they're in school. No one should ever refuse to go to college because of its cost.

And earlier today, to give one more example of what we mean by the presence of opportunity, on this Martin Luther King Day I met with a group of business leaders and urged them to become active partners in communities where the need is greatest. We have learned time and again now, ever since Martin Luther King lived and died, that even when we have times of great economic growth there are areas in the inner cities and in rural America that are totally left out of the economic progress that occurs. We have learned that unless we can rebuild our communities from the grassroots up, unless we can rebuild the institutions of a community in ways that support work and family and children, that millions and millions of Americans will be left out of the American dream.

And so today we announced our creation of 104 empowerment zones and enterprise communities that can make a difference, that will give people at the grassroots level the power to educate and employ people who otherwise will be lost, to themselves and to the rest of us, for a generation. That is the sort of thing that Martin Luther King would want us to do, not just to let discrimination go away but to create opportunity.

And finally, let me say that we will never do this unless we create the ways and means for people to choose a peaceful and wholesome life. The most important experience I have had as your President here at home, I think, in the last several months was having the opportunity to go to Memphis and to stand in the pulpit where Dr. King gave his last address and speak to 5,000 ministers of the Church of God in Christ, many of whom are longtime personal friends of mine, and say that Martin Luther King did not live and die to give young people the right to shoot each other on the street.

I come home thinking to myself: I am so proud of the fact that I had the chance to be President at a time when the United States was leading an agreement with Russia, in Ukraine, in Belarus, in Kazakhstan to dismantle weapons of mass destruction; but we can't get guns out of our own schools. I'm proud of the fact that we are pursuing an aggressive high-technology policy, under the leadership of the Vice President, that will help to turn this whole nation into a giant high-tech neighborhood so we can learn from one another and relate to each other; but we can't even make it safe for kids to walk the streets of their own neighborhoods.

We would be asked, I think, by Martin Luther King how come this is so. When Mr. DeBose stood up and said everybody can be great because everybody can serve—Martin Luther King's greatest quote—I say to you today, we have to ask ourselves what our personal responsibility is to serve in this time. And when we cannot explain these contradictions, then we have to work through them. We may not have all of the answers; none of us do. I cannot expect you to have them; as President, I don't have them. But I know what the problems are, and so do you. And we know there are some things that will make a difference. And we have an obligation to try in our time to make that difference. There are too many questions we cannot answer today.

Dr. King said, "Men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don't know each other. They don't know each other because they can't communicate with each other. They can't communicate with each other because they are separated from each other." We all need to think about this. We've got a lot of walls still to tear down in this country, a lot of divisions to overcome, and we need to start with honest conversation, honest outreach, and a clear understanding that none of us has any place to hide. This is not a problem of race; it is a problem of the American family. And we had better get about solving it as a family.

Laws can help. That's why I wanted to pass the Brady bill. That's why I want to take these assault weapons off the street. That's why I want to do a lot of other things that will help to regulate how we deal with this craziness of violence on our streets. That's why I want more police officers, not to catch criminals even as much as to prevent crime. We know that community policing prevents crime if it's done right. Laws can help.

But Martin Luther King reminded us, too, that laws can regulate behavior but not the heart. And so I say to you, we must also seek what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." And we all have a responsibility there. When he spoke here at Howard, Martin Luther King said the following things, and I thought about it today when I was looking at Mr. DeBose up here introducing me, expressing the pride in the service he rendered and how it changed the minds and the hearts of the people with whom and for whom he worked. Dr. King said, "Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless effort and persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be coworkers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of stagnation. And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always right for one to do right." "Time is neutral," he said. "Time can either be used constructively or destructively." All he asked from each of the rest of us was to put in a tiny, little minute.

So, will we make Martin Luther King glad or sad about the way we use our tiny, little minutes? In any one minute in America today, two aggravated assaults take place, six burglaries occur, three violent crimes are committed, and three times an hour, that violent act is a murder. But think about it. Within the stand of the same minute, two men from different worlds, like Arafat and Rabin, can shake hands and set off on a new road to peace. A leader can agree that his country must give up the world's third largest nuclear arsenal. In one minute, people can make an enormous positive difference: they decide to keep a seat on a bus instead of move to the back; they decide to show up for school instead of be shunted away; they decide to sit at a lunch counter even if they won't get to eat that day; they decide to pursue an education even if they're not sure there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; they work to keep their neighborhoods safe just to create a tiny little park where children can play without fear again; they keep their families together when it's so easy to let them fall apart; and, they work to give a child the sense that he or she is important and loved and worthy, with a future.

When I think about it I'm often sad that Martin Luther King had so few precious minutes on this Earth. Two days ago he would have celebrated his 65th birthday, and the older I get the younger I realize 65 is. [Laughter] But you know, he did a lot with the time he had, and I think we should try to do the same.

Thank you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 2:20 p.m. in Cramton Auditorium at Howard University. In his remarks, he referred to Charles DeBose, Jr., national service intern, and university officials Franklyn Jenifer, president, and Joyce Ladner, vice president for academic affairs. The Executive order and memorandum on fair housing are listed in Appendix D at the end of this volume.

William J. Clinton, Remarks on the Observance of the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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