Address to the Nation's Students on the Observance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

 

January 15, 1988

 

Today we honor a man who dedicated his life to the pursuit of a dream -- a dream not just for himself but for you, for all of us, for America. And in honoring his commitment, his dedication, his life, we rededicate ourselves to the fundamental principle behind that dream and to the challenge that history has given every American from the founding of our country to the present: the challenge of making that principle and that dream, the American dream, an enduring reality.

 

Our nation's founders first stated the principle to which Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., dedicated his life when they wrote: ``We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'' Today we continue to cherish those truths and the rights and values upon which our country was founded and for which Americans have, for 200 years, worked and fought and, yes, for which many have given their lives -- for which Reverend King gave his life.

 

Many years ago, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Reverend King reminded us of what America stands for. He reminded us that America has issued a promissory note of full rights for all its citizens. Yes, he reminded us that the destinies of all Americans were tied to one another, that the freedom of all Americans was inextricably bound together. He said that the day must come when all Americans are judged not by the color of their skins but by the content of their character.

 

The fight -- Reverend King's fight -- for genuine equality of opportunity goes on, even today. We're all part of it, but we should never forget the strides that have been made and the many reasons for hope. Too often in the past, for example, blacks lagged behind in economic well-being while others advanced. We would hear story after story about how America's promise of opportunity had failed blacks. But since our recovery began more than 5 years ago, black employment has shot forward twice as fast as white employment. Since 1982 the real income of black families has increased almost 40 percent faster than white family income, and the share of black families in the highest income brackets is up by over 70 percent. Last year one leading economic observer looked at this record of opportunity, hope, and achievement and concluded that ``on every front -- jobs, income, even household wealth -- 1981 through 1986 were the best 5 economic years in black history.''

 

Great strides are being made in education, as well. The publication we released last spring, ``Schools That Work,'' describes many schools that are doing a good job educating disadvantaged children. One shining example is the Garrison Elementary School in the South Bronx in New York City. The student population is half black, half Hispanic. The school lies in one of the poorest sections of New York. Yet for the past 5 years, Garrison has ranked in the top 12 percent of New York City schools in reading achievement. By the time they reach the sixth grade, nearly every student performs at or above grade level in both reading and math.

 

You know, one of our Founding Fathers, James Madison, once said: ``A well instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.'' That's why it's so important that every American receives a sound education. That's why it's important that you stick to your studies, work hard, and get your diploma. You'll be doing it for yourself, yes, but also for your family, your friends, your community, and your nation. Make it your first contribution to preserving the American dream for the generations to come.

 

You know, Nancy and I have asked all of you to just say no to drugs. That way -- and by finishing school -- you'll just say yes to your future and your dreams. Reverend King and many others through our history have lived and died so you could make those dreams into realities. By doing your best, you can say thank you to them.

 

In that speech I mentioned at the Lincoln Memorial, Reverend King said that with our faith in America's promise of freedom and opportunity we could ``transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.'' To move the world towards enduring love and brotherhood is the continuing vocation of the human soul. But we in America are vastly closer today to realizing our national ideals because of Reverend King's life and work.

 

Let us each, on this day, dedicate ourselves to preserving and expanding the American dream. Let us resolve that future generations will know a new birth of freedom and that this land that Reverend King loved so well and gave so much to will continue to shine with the brilliant hope of all mankind.

 

Note: The President's address was videotaped at 5:04 p.m. on January 14 in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. It was broadcast on January 15 and 18 on Public Broadcasting Service and Southern Educational Communications Association television stations.