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Speech by the First Lady
for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
at Ebenezer Baptist Church
January 21, 2002
Speech by the First Lady for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at Ebenezer Baptist Church
What a tremendous privilege it is to be with you at this historic church, on this wonderful day, to remember an extraordinary man. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man committed to peace - and a man committed to change. He was a practical man who is best known for having articulated a great American dream. He deeply loved his country - and because he did, he constantly reminded America of her unfilled promises. Doctor King exerted a tremendous influence on his time - and he continues to speak to ours as well.
Martin Luther King, Jr. shaped our laws and values, our conscience and our history. And Doctor King was guided by a single, overpowering conviction: the dignity and worth of every member of the human family. That is what he lived for - and that is what he died for.
There are countless reasons to admire Doctor King, including his "persistent bravery"1and personal grace, his commitment to justice, his wisdom and deep compassion. One of the most remarkable things about him is that he was the object of so much bigotry and hatred - and yet he never grew bitter or cynical. He never resorted to violence or anger. And he never ceased to love others.
Slavery and segregation were America's besetting sins - and Doctor King, along with President Lincoln, lifted those sins from American life and American law. American history is unimaginable without him.
But I must tell you that there is another reason I hold Martin Luther King, Jr. in such high regard - and that is his passionate commitment to education. Doctor King had wonderful parents wonderful teachers and wonderful mentors. He believed a good education was the birthright of every American child. He viewed it as the gateway to greater opportunity and a better life, and as a way to ensure equal rights and social justice.
It is worth reminding ourselves that as a young black man, growing up under Jim Crow in the middle of the twentieth century, Martin Luther King, Jr. turned to the writings of history's greatest philosophers for wisdom and practical guidance. He immersed himself in thinkers from Plato and Aristotle, down to Rousseau, Hobbes, Mill and Locke. His incredible education allowed him to become the twentieth century's greatest advocate of the American dream, and the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence.
Doctor King also understood that education is about more than reading and writing and arithmetic - even though those are vital. He understood that education is also about shaping children's character - and helping them to become good citizens.
Since Doctor King's passing, times have changed, but principles have not. I can't help but believe that Doctor King would have been pleased with the recent education bill that was overwhelmingly passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by my husband.
I think he would have been pleased that we have begun a new era in public education that America's schools are on a new path of reform and results and that every child in America will now have an equal chance to grow in knowledge and character. I think he would have been pleased that we will be spending a lot more money on education - and that we will be spending it on what works. And I know he would have supported the principle of the legislation, which is that no child in America will be left behind.
I also think Doctor King would have appreciated the bipartisan cooperation that took place. Senator Kennedy and my husband belong to different political parties - but they worked side by side to turn an idea into law - and a hope into reality. Republicans and Democrats put their country ahead of their party - and they dealt with one another with respect and civility.
Laws are important - but so is lifting people's vision. In a sermon preached in Montgomery, Alabama - at the height of the civil rights struggle, when passions were inflamed and segregation was still the law of the land - Doctor King once again reached for the moral high ground, as only he could. "As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline," he said, "using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him."
Near the end of his remarkable sermon, this remarkable man said the following:
"I still believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may. I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love."
Martin Luther King, Jr. lived less than forty years. His life was often filled with pain. But he stood for truth. He did the will of God. And he made America a far better, and more just, nation.
All of us are deeply indebted to him, to his wife and family, and to all of those who gave him strength for the journey.
Thank you very much.
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