President Bush hailed Martin Luther King Jr. Monday as one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, but said more must be done to ensure that his dream of equality becomes a reality.
“At the dawn of this new century, America can be proud of the progress we have made toward equality, but we all must recognize we have more to do,” Bush said during a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “The reason to honor Martin Luther King is to remember his strength of character and his leadership, but also to remember the remaining work.”
Bush told the crowd at the annual “Let Freedom Ring” performance that Congress must renew provisions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that are set to expire next year. The president had previously declined to support the renewal until last month, and the crowd erupted in applause when Bush insisted that it be renewed.
“We recommit ourselves to working for the dream that Martin Luther King gave his life for — an America where the dignity of every person is respected; where people are judged not by the color of their skin— by the content of their character; and where the hope of a better tomorrow is in every neighborhood in this country,” Bush said.
The president helped honor the late Rosa Parks, who died last fall, with the John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award. Grammy-nominated gospel artist Yolanda Adams performed with a diverse choir made up of Georgetown University students and members of the Washington community.
Earlier, the president peered through a glass case at the original Emancipation Proclamation, which was on display for just four days at the National Archives. Abraham Lincoln signed the document declaring the end of slavery in the midst of the Civil War on Jan. 1, 1863, and it is only occasionally brought out of storage because the poor quality of the paper and ink make it vulnerable to light.
“It seems fitting on Martin Luther King Day that I come and look at the Emancipation Proclamation in its original form,” Bush said. “Abraham Lincoln recognized that all men are created equal. Martin Luther King lived on that admonition to call our country to a higher calling, and today we celebrate the life of an American who called Americans to account when we didn’t live up to our ideals.”
Holiday's 20th anniversary
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the federal holiday, first held on Jan. 20, 1986. Sunday would have been King’s 77th birthday.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, also paying tribute to the late civil rights leader, said he believes civil rights “is not a black, brown or white issue. It is a people’s issue.”
Gonzales said that as a parent and citizen and as “the attorney general for all Americans,” he believes he has an obligation to help make the dream of equality come to fruition.
“I’ve lived that dream,” he said, “and I must preserve and protect the hopes and opportunities that I have received for future generations.”
Holiday commemorated nationwide
Elsewhere in the country, Americans marked the holiday with services and volunteer projects.
“It is our time to step up to the plate as we have done in the past to lead this country and world by example,” Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said at the King Day service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King once preached.
Franklin also urged “bold, audacious” action on Monday, including pressing for more aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Absent from the Atlanta service was King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who suffered a stroke and heart attack last August. She had received a standing ovation Saturday night when she when she appeared on stage with her children at an awards dinner, but she did not speak.
In Columbia, S.C., hundreds of people crowded into Zion Baptist Church for a march to the Statehouse for the annual King Day rally.
“Martin Luther King had a dream. Some 38 years later, how much progress have we really made toward living that dream?” the Rev. Charles Jackson asked the crowd.
Home for Katrina victims to be built
In Philadelphia, organizers of the Martin Luther King Day of Service were expecting thousands of volunteers to help with 600 projects in the area.
Among them: the building of a house that will be trucked to Lafayette, La., for a family left homeless by Katrina and construction of a two-story playground house. Volunteers also were working to provide meals to people with HIV and AIDS.
Last month, the board of directors of The King Center, located next to the Atlanta church, broached the possibility of selling the center to the National Park Service. But some King family members have been sharply critical of the idea.
Isaac Newton Farris, a nephew of King who is president of the King Center, is one of the supporters, and he mentioned the idea in his remarks Monday. Farris said the sale would help them “devote more resources — human and economic — to developing programs, not managing buildings.”
“You still will be able to visit the King Center — we just won’t own it,” he said. “We want the King Center to be engineers of society, not engineers of buildings.”