[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1995, Book I)] [January 16, 1995] [Pages 49-52] [From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]
Remarks Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., in Denver, Colorado January 16, 1995 The President. Thank you. It is wonderful to be back in Colorado, to be back in Denver, and to be in this great spot which holds such a warm memory for me. The last time I came here we had a vast crowd. I was asking for the opportunity to serve as your President. And I must say, when I came before, I had Sinbad with me as the warmup act, and I thought that was responsible for the crowd. Today I am honored to be here with all these fine people on the platform and with all of you. I thank my friend Governor Romer for what he said and for his leadership and for his long friendship. I thank Senator Campbell and Congresswoman Schroeder for coming all the way back from Washington to be here with me and, most important, to be here with you today. I thank Secretary Pena for his outstanding service as our Transportation Secretary, working to make this country a safer place. And of course, I am grateful to the mayor and to Mrs. Webb for their leadership in this stunning event and for allowing me to be a small part of this. We come here today to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King. We know that he would have been 66 years old today. To me, it seems only yesterday when he was 39 and laying down his life for what he believed. Mayor Webb said that the life of Martin Luther King had special relevance for African-Americans because of what he meant. Let me tell you that his life should have special impact for every American, for he freed the rest of us, too, of our hatred, our bigotry, of the illusion which still crops up from time to time that we can somehow lift ourselves up by putting others down, that somehow, if we can just find someone to look down on, we can feel like we're being looked up to. Martin Luther King knew better than that. I ask you today, my fellow Americans, to think about why he lived and what he laid his life down for, to think about what ought to be driving our lives, our individual lives and our lives as citizens. You heard earlier Dr. King's famous ``I have a dream'' speech. I saw a sign held up earlier, when I came in, saying that they had a dream for America; did I have a dream for America--the people holding the sign up there. Remember what Martin Luther King said? He said, ``My dream is deeply rooted in the American dream.'' What did he mean by that? The Founders said: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today, my fellow Americans, I want to talk to you about our common right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I ask you to think today of Government but to think beyond Government to people. I ask you to think today of the programs and the work of Government but to think beyond that to the lives of people. I ask you to remember today that, more than anything else, Martin Luther King's life was a life of service. Even as he marched all across this land and took that vast throng to Washington, DC, and asked the Government to act, he knew that in the end, what was in the heart and the spirit and the mind of the average American citizen was even more important. [[Page 50]] And that is why he always said that all of us had a responsibility to do our part and to serve. Martin Luther King said, ``Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.'' He said, ``If all you do is sweep the streets, then sweep them just as well as Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.'' Be the best streetsweeper that ever lived; serve and serve. I was asked the other day, of all the things that had happened in the last 2 years, was there one achievement I could say I was most proud of? And I said, I think it was the creation of the national service program. And some of them are here today. Why? Because these young people are committed to service. And if we all are committed to the idea that we are bound up with one another, then we can all be great and our country will be great. When I came here in 1992, I was worried about the direction of this country. I was concerned about the economic problems of America. More importantly, I was concerned that we seemed to be drifting and divided and that we had no clear role for how we might work together to build a better future, to reclaim that dream for which Martin Luther King gave his life. And I told you that I would seek, for my part, to do three things: one, to give this country a new economic policy that would bring down the deficit and bring up employment and bring us forward toward the next century; two, a different way of governing, that I would reduce the size of the Federal Government and increase its creativity, its effectiveness, its relevance to your life. And we have done both those things. We have restored a sense of economic direction and opportunity to this country, and the Government is smaller and yet still more effective. No one exemplifies that any better than Denver's Transportation Secretary, Federico Pena. But I knew then and I say again now that that would be fine but not enough, that we literally had to change our relationship in America as citizens to our Government and, most importantly, to each other. It was what I called then and what I say now is a New Covenant, the idea that you have a right to certain opportunities, but in return you must exercise personal responsibility in return for those opportunities to make the most of your own life, the life of your family, the life of your community, and the life of your country. That is what this is all about. That's why when people talk about something like welfare reform, I don't think about punishing poor people, I think about ending welfare so poor people can work and be good parents and have a better life and look to a better future. That's why, when we passed the crime bill, I thought it was a good thing just to give money to local communities to hire more police officers and also to have opportunities to give our children something to say yes to as well as something to say no to, so that we could show responsibility even as we seized opportunities. If you think about it, that is the great debate we should be having today: What is our responsibility to ourselves, and what is our responsibility to each other? If you have rights without responsibility, pretty soon people lose their rights because they don't behave responsibly. If you go around telling people to be responsible all the time and there never is an opportunity coming forward, pretty soon they get tired of being responsible. What we have to do today, if we want hope, if we want the dream to live again, is to say to each other: We will have a new commitment to creating opportunity and to being responsible. We will say no to violence and yes to hope. We will say no, no to the idea that we can get anywhere by being divided against one another and yes to the idea that our diversity is a strength. I am telling you, we can have all the economic growth in the world, but until we face the fact that we are going up or down together and we'd better get after the business of working together to make the most of all our potential, we will never be what we ought to be as a country. Now, I know we have more to do in Washington. I know that a lot of people are working harder and still not having a raise. I know, as the pastor prayed, that another million Americans in working families lost their health insurance last year. I know there are problems there. That's why I have said that in this coming session of Congress I will devote myself to what I call the middle class bill of rights, which could be called the bill of rights and responsibilities, because it offers you the right to pursue happiness, not the guarantee of happiness. I believe with all my heart that if we're going to worry about lowering taxes, we ought to lower taxes to help people educate themselves and their [[Page 51]] children and strengthen their families, so we can move forward together and grow together. And so I have said, let's do four things that the Government can do to help people exercise more responsibility and take control of their own lives: tax deductions for all the cost of education after high school; lower the tax burden for parents with young children so they have more money to spend on raising the kids; let people save money in an individual retirement account, but let them withdraw it without a penalty for education or health care or taking care of their parents when they're sick; when people are unemployed or working hard for low wages and they're willing to get new skills, give them the funds they need to get education and training so they can grow into what God meant them to be. But I say to you again: We can pass that program. We can have the crime bill work perfectly. But unless in Denver, Colorado, you do what the Governor challenged you to do, we will not be what we ought to be. This country cannot go on with children shooting children. This country cannot go on with so many kids just giving up on their lives. This country cannot go on with more and more little babies being born into unstable situations where the mothers are children, too, and the future looks bleak. We can turn this around. But we have got to turn it around, and we have got to do it together by lifting each other up. You know, the reason I said what I did about the service corps--and all the young people in the Denver national service corps raised their hands--I want to tell you why I did that. I did that because to me that represents everything I wanted to do. These young people are building the new economy because when they work on solving problems in Denver, they earn some money to go to college. And they're changing the way the Government works because there is no bureaucracy at all; they just have a project here and apply for the opportunity for young people to work in it. This is not a Government bureaucracy. But most important of all, most important of all, this is creating that new relationship of opportunity and responsibility, building up a community by people giving and getting and giving and getting and giving and getting, until pretty soon lives are changed and futures are changed. Today, to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday, there are young people like this all over America. They're rebuilding schools in Atlanta as we talk today. They're rebuilding homes in Memphis. They're helping people work their way out of the flood in California. And they're here today in Denver, building this country, doing what we ought to do. I was told a day or so ago that in this new Congress there may be a move to abolish the national service corps to save money to pay for tax cuts. Audience members. No-o-o! The President. Well, let me say, I know about cutting Government spending. We've taken $11,000 in debt off of every family in America by reducing the deficit. We have reduced the size of the Federal Government to its smallest size since Martin Luther King visited John Kennedy in the White House. I know about that. But the purpose of all this is not to wreck the Government, not to give us a mean-spirited Government. It is to give us a lean Government that will help us to work together to solve our own problems. That's what we should be committed to do in Washington and in Denver and in every community throughout this great land. So let me ask you to think about this. Look at all the young people in this audience. Look at the fine young people in their band uniforms. Look at the young people around the choir and the young kids here. Look at all the children here, all different colors and backgrounds. What is the American dream? It is the right to pursue happiness. It requires a certain equality and a certain respect. It requires us to listen as well as to talk. I know the American people are often angry and frustrated today. But let me tell you something, folks, this is a very great country, and there is nothing that cannot be fixed if we will rely on our hearts and our spirits and what we know to be true. I have traveled this whole world on your behalf. I have seen many different places. I have dealt with many different opportunities and problems. I am more convinced today than I was on the day I took the oath of office that the greatest days of America lie in front of us if we have the courage to live the dream of Martin Luther King. But remember, what he lived and died for was for every one of you to have the right to do good and to be good and to make the most of your own life. It was no living and dying [[Page 52]] for the freedom to shoot people, no living and dying for the freedom to shoot up, no living and dying for the freedom to hate people, no living and dying for the freedom to ignore the responsibilities of parenthood and the obligations of our children. That is not what this was about. And there was no living and dying to advance the proposition that we are all just isolated individuals out here, we don't need anybody helping anybody else, and everything we do as a Government is intrinsically bad. That idea is wrong, too. So I say to you, as you look to the next century, let's make Denver and the West the frontier of the next century by proving that you can be a rugged individual, you can do everything you want in your individual aspirations, but only if you build a new community where everybody has a chance to rise up and everybody has a chance to be respected and every child has a chance to be loved and to be important. That is what this is all about. And let us look for ways every day, every day, to say the dream of Martin Luther King depends upon what I do inside and how I relate to my fellow men and women and to all the little boys and girls. Twenty-seven years ago, April 4th, Martin Luther King was killed. Only such a young man, but he gave his life willingly so that we might become all God meant for us to be. We can still do it. We will have more opportunities than ever before. But you look at this sea of people, and you think about what the Founding Fathers said over 200 years ago: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, together. Thank you, and God bless you all. Note: The President spoke at 12:34 p.m. in the Amphitheater. In his remarks, he referred to Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado and Mayor Wellington Webb of Denver and his wife, Wilma.