[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1994, Book I)]
[January 17, 1994]
[Pages 94-99]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

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

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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 
    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

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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

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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

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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 
    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 
    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 
    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

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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 
    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.