President Bush yesterday celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day by viewing the Emancipation Proclamation at the National Archives and delivering a speech to 2,500 people at the Kennedy Center, where he said the civil rights leader had lived “one of America’s most important lives.”
During an early morning trip to the Archives, the president slipped on reading glasses to peer through a glass case at the original document ending slavery, which President Lincoln signed in the midst of the Civil War on Jan. 1, 1863.
“It seems fitting on Martin Luther King Day that I come and look at the Emancipation Proclamation in its original form,” Mr. 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.”
The document, badly faded and rarely displayed because the paper and ink are vulnerable to light, declares that slaves “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
The president said the difficult battle for civil rights is not finished.
“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,” Mr. Bush said. “The reason to honor Martin Luther King is to remember his strength of character and his leadership, but also to remember the remaining work.”
Mr. Bush also recalled Rosa Parks, the civil rights leader who died in October at 92.
“The reason to honor Mrs. Parks is not only to pay homage to her strength of character, but to remember the ideal of active citizenship. Active citizens in the 1960s struggled hard to convince Congress to pass civil rights legislation that ensured the rights of all, including the right to vote. And Congress must renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” the president said.
In Atlanta, King’s widow watched via television as preachers and politicians at Ebenezer Baptist Church praised the King family and urged people to continue his lifelong pursuit of civil rights and nonviolence.
Coretta Scott King, recovering from a stroke and heart attack, received a standing ovation Saturday night when she appeared on stage with her children at an awards dinner.
Some of the speakers used the church pulpit where King preached from 1960 until his death in 1968 to criticize the Iraq war, saying that money spent by the military overseas could be used at home to improve education, especially for blacks.
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said the city, as keeper of King’s legacy, has a particular obligation to preserve his “legacy of fighting for social and economic justice, a legacy of marching with the poor and the neglected, a legacy of demanding peace against senseless war.”
This article is based in part on wire service reports.