President Bush yesterday hailed Martin Luther King as a “towering figure” and said the civil rights leader’s dream of a more just and equal society can be achieved through ordinary people living lives of “kindness and compassion.”
Mr. Bush celebrated his seventh Martin Luther KingDay as president by visiting the public library in the District named after the assassinated leader and speaking with elementary school students and volunteer reading instructors.
The president, accompanied by first lady Laura Bush, said MLK Day is an “opportunity to renew our deep desire for America to be a land of promise for everybody, a land of justice and a land of opportunity.”
“Our fellow citizens have got to understand that by loving a neighbor like you’d like to be loved yourself, by reaching out to someone who hurts, by just simply living a life of kindness and compassion, you can make America a better place and fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King,” he said.
King was assassinated at age 39 on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn. He would have turned 79 this month. King’s birthday is Jan. 15, but the national holiday — first instituted in 1986 — is celebrated on the third Monday of January.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat whose brother Sen. Robert F. Kennedy also fought for equal rights for minorities and was assassinated two months after King, called civil rights “America’s unfinished business.”
“Despite enormous progress since the civil rights movement, discrimination and lack of opportunity continue to limit the lives of many. We must meet these 21st-century civil rights challenges in the spirit of Dr. King’s example,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Mr. Bush, during many of the King celebrations early in his presidency, emphasized the civil rights movement, but as early as 2004 he used the holiday to highlight his faith-based initiative program. Last year, he visited a D.C. public high school and touched on the message of community service that he expanded upon yesterday.
In 2001, Mr. Bush, who was inaugurated after the King holiday, spoke nine days later on his intention to promote faith-based programs. He had said he was “resolved to put government on … the side of the committed and the caring and the compassionate.”
He became the first president to create an office of faith-based programs at the White House, and intended to make “compassionate conservatism” a centerpiece of his administration, until the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks altered the course of his presidency.