THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
(Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts)
|For Immediate Release|| ||August 28, 1998|
REMARKS OF THE PRESIDENT
IN COMMEMORATION OF THE
35TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON
Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts
2:54 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. First of all, hasn'tthis day made you proud to be an American? (Applause.) I want to thankDr.Ogletree and the entire committee -- Skip Gates, Anita Hill, JudgeHiggenbotham. I want to thank Sebastian for doing a superb job ofremindingus of the important facts of Martin Luther King's life. Marianne, thankyoufor your work and your words today. I thank Sabrina and Elza for leadingusin the singing, and Giles, Olivia and Mia for reading from the "I Have ADream" speech. Rebecca, thank you for the books. Mr. Bryant, thank youformaking us welcome in your congregation.
And should I say, Reverend Lewis? (Applause.) John, Iwouldnot be a bit surprised if when we walk out these doors today every chickenonthis island will be standing out there -- (laughter and applause) -- in the
street waiting for their leader. (Laughter.)
John Lewis has been my friend for a long time -- a longtime.A long time before he could have ever known that I would be here. And hestood with me in 1991 when only my mother and my wife thought I had anychanceof being elected. So you have to make allowances and discount some of what hesays. (Laughter.) But I treasure the years of friendship we have shared. Ihave boundless admiration for him. He and Lillian have been an incrediblesource of strength and support to Hillary and me, and our country is amuch,much better place because of the road John Lewis has walked. (Applause.)
The summer of 1963 was a very eventful one for me, thesummerI turned 17. What most people know about it now is the famous picture ofmeshaking hands with President Kennedy in July -- it was a great moment. But Ithink the moment wecommemorate today -- a moment I experienced all alone -- had amore profound impact on my life.
Most of us who are old enough remember exactly wherewe were on August 28, 1963. I was in my living room in HotSprings, Arkansas. I remember the chair I was sitting in; Iremember exactly where it was in the room; I remember exactly theposition of the chair when I sat and watched on nationaltelevision the great March on Washington unfold. I rememberweeping uncontrollably during Martin Luther King's speech, and Iremember thinking when it was over, my country would never be thesame, and neither would I.
There are people all across this country who made amore intense commitment to the idea of racial equality andjustice that day than they had ever made before. And so, in verypersonal ways, all of us became better and bigger because of thework of those who brought that great day about. There aremillions of people who John Lewis will never meet who are betterand bigger because of what that day meant.
And the words continue to echo down to the presentday, spoken to us today by children who were not even alive then.And, God willing, their grandchildren will also be inspired andmoved and become better and bigger because of what happened onthat increasingly distant summer day.
What I'd like to ask you to think about a littletoday and to share with you -- and I'll try to do it withouttaking my spectacles out, but I don't write very well and I don'tread too well as I get older -- is what I think this means for ustoday. I was trying to think about what John and Dr. King andothers did, and how they did it, and how it informs what I do andhow I think about other things today. And I would ask you onlyto think about three things -- the hour is late and it's warm inhere, and I can't bring the chickens home to roost. (Laughter.)
But I think of these three things. Number one, Dr.King used to speak about how we were all bound together in a webof mutuality which was an elegant way of saying, whether we likeit or not, we're all in this life together. We areinterdependent. Well, what does that mean? Well, let me giveyou a specific example.
We had some good news today -- incomes in Americawent up 5 percent last year. That's a big bump in a year. We'vegot the best economy in a generation. That's the good news. Butwe are mutually interdependent with people far beyond ourborders. Yesterday there was some more news that was troublingout of Russia -- some rumor, some fact, about the decline in theeconomy. Our stock market dropped over 350 points. And in LatinAmerica, our most fast-growing for American exports, all themarkets went down, even though, as far as we know, most of thosecountries are doing everything right. Why? Because we're in atighter and tighter and tighter web of mutuality.
Asia has these economic troubles. So even thoughwe've got the best economy in a generation, our farm exports toAsia are down 30 percent from last year, and we have states inthis country where farmers -- the hardest working people in thiscountry -- can't make their mortgage payments because of thingsthat happened half a world away they didn't have any directinfluence on at all. This world is being bound together moreclosely.
So what is the lesson from that? Well, I should goto Russia, because, as John said, anybody can come see you whenyou're doing well. I should go there and I should -- (applause.)And we should tell them that if they'll be strong and do thedisciplined, hard things they have to do to reform their country,their economy, and get through this dark night, that we'll stickwith them. And we ought to meet our responsibilities to theInternational Monetary Fund and these other international groups,because we can't solve the world's problems alone -- we can'teven solve our problems alone, because we're in this web ofmutuality. (Applause.)
But I learned that from the civil rights movement --not from an economics textbook.
The second thing, even if you're not a pacifist,whenever possible peace and nonviolence is always the right thingto do. (Applause.) I remember so vividly in 1994 -- John writesabout this in the book -- I was trying to pass this crime bill.And all the opposition to the crime bill that was in thenewspapers, all the intense opposition was coming from the NRAand the others that did not want us to ban assault weapons,didn't believe that we ought to have more community policemenwalking the streets, and conservatives who thought we should justpunish more and not spend more money trying to keep kids out oftrouble in the first place. And it was a huge fight.
And so they came to see me, and they said, well,John Lewis is not going to vote for this bill. And I said, why?And they said, because it increases the number of crimes subjectto the federal death penalty, and he's not for it. And he's notin bed with all those other people, he thinks they're wrong, buthe can't vote for it.
And I said, well, let him alone, there's no point incalling him, because he's lived a lifetime dedicated to an idea,and while I may not be a pacifist, whenever possible it's alwaysthe right thing to do -- to try to be peaceable and nonviolent.(Applause.)
What does that mean for today? Well, there's a lotof good news. It's like the economy. The crime rate is at a25-year low; juvenile crime is finally coming down. Yesterday weput out a handbook to send to every school in the country to tryto increase the ability of teachers and others to identify kidsin trouble, to try to stop these horrible, although isolatedexamples when young people wreak violence on others. We've gotall over the country now these exciting community-based programsthat are dramatically reducing violence among young people -- theschool uniforms and curfew programs, and summer school in Chicagonow is the sixth biggest school district in America -- the summerschool. Over 40,000 kids are now getting three square meals aday in the schools of that city. There's a lot of great thingsgoing on. But it is still a pretty violent world.
A black man was murdered recently in Texas in themost horrible way, because people not representative of thatcommunity, but people living in that community, were driven crazythrough their demonic images of a man of a different race.
We have more diversity than ever before. It'swonderful, but there are still -- we now see different minoritygroups at each other's throat from time to time, notunderstanding their racial or their cultural or their religiousdifferences. And again, there is this web of mutuality.
Half a world away terrorists trying to hurtAmericans blow up two embassies in Africa. And they kill some ofour people, some of our best people, of, I might add, very manydifferent racial and ethnic backgrounds -- American citizens,including a distinguished career African American diplomat andhis son. But they also killed almost 300 Africans and wounded5,000 others.
We see their pictures in the morning paper -- two ofthem who did that -- we're bringing them home. And they looklike active, confident young people. What happened inside themthat made them feel so much hatred toward us that they couldjustify not only an act of violence against innocent diplomatsand other public servants, but the collateral consequences toAfricans whom they would never know? They had children, too.
So it is always best to remember that we have to tryto work for peace in the Middle East, for peace in NorthernIreland, for an end to terrorism, for protections againstbiological and chemical weapons being used in the first place.
The night before we took action against theterrorist operations in Afghanistan and Sudan, I was here on thisisland, up until 2:30 a.m. in the morning, trying to makeabsolutely sure that at that chemical plant there was no nightshift. I believed I had to take the action I did, but I didn'twant some person who was a nobody to me, but who may have afamily to feed and a life to live and probably had no earthlyidea what else was going on there to die needlessly. (Applause.)
It's another reason why we ought to pay our debt tothe United Nations, because if we can work together, together wecan find more peaceful solutions. Now, I didn't learn that whenI became President. I learned it from John Lewis and the civilrights movement a long time ago. (Applause.)
And the last thing I learned from them on which allthese other things depend, without which we cannot build a worldof peace, or one America in an increasingly peaceful world, boundtogether in this web of mutuality, is that you can't get thereunless you're willing to forgive your enemies.
I never will forget one of the most -- I don't thinkI've ever spoken about this in public before, but I -- one of themost meaningful, personal moments I've had as President was aconversation I had with Nelson Mandela. And I said to him -- Isaid, you know, I've read your book and I've heard you speak, andyou spent time with my wife and daughter, and you've talked aboutinviting your jailers to your inauguration. And I said, it'svery moving, and I said, you're a shrewd as well as a great man.But, come on, now, how did you really do that? You can't make mebelieve you didn't hate those people who did that to you -- for27 years.
He said, I did hate them for quite a long time.After all, they abused me physically and emotionally. Theyseparated me from my wife and it eventually broke my family up.They kept me from seeing my children grow up. He said, for quitea long time I hated them.
And then he said, I realized one day, breakingrocks, that they could take everything away from me -- everything-- but my mind and my heart. Now, those things I would have togive away. And I simply decided I would not give them away.(Applause.)
So, as you look around the world you see -- how doyou explain these three children who were killed in Ireland, orall the people who were killed in the square when the people weretold to leave the city hall, there was a bomb there, and thenthey walked out toward the bomb? What about all those familiesin Africa --I don't know, I can't pick up the telephone and callthem and say, I'm so sorry this happened -- how do we find thatspirit?
All of you know, I'm having to become quite anexpert in this business of asking for forgiveness. (Applause.)It gets a little easier the more you do it. And if you have afamily, an administration, a Congress and a whole country to askyou -- you're going to get a lot of practice. (Laughter.)
But I have to tell you that in these last days, ithas come home to me, again, something I first learned asPresident, but it wasn't burned in my bones, and that is that inorder to get it, you have to be willing to give it. (Applause.)
And all of us -- the anger, the resentment, thebitterness, the desire for recrimination against people youbelieve have wronged you, they harden the heart and deaden thespirit and lead to self-inflicted wounds. And so it is importantthat we are able to forgive those we believe have wronged us,even as we ask for forgiveness from people we have wronged. AndI heard that first -- first -- in the civil rights movement:"Love thy neighbor as thyself." (Applause.)
What does it all mean and where do we take it fromhere? I'm so glad John told you the story of the little kids, ofwhom he was one, holding the house down. I want to close withwhat else he said about it, because it's where I think we have togo in order for the civil rights movement to have a lastinglegacy.
In the prologue of John's book, he tells the storyabout the kids holding the house down. And then he says thefollowing: "More than half a century has passed since that day.And it has struck me more than once over those many years thatour society is not unlike the children in that house, rockedagain and again by the winds of one storm or another, the wallsaround us seeming at times as if they might fly apart. It seemedthat way in the 1960s when America felt itself bursting at theseams; so many storms.
But the people of conscience never left the house.They never ran away. They stayed. They came together. They didthe best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the cornerof the house that was weakest. And then another corner wouldlift, and we would go there. And eventually, inevitably, thestorm would settle and the house would still stand. But we knewanother storm would come and we would have to do it all overagain. And we did. And we still do, all of us, you and I.Children holding hands, walking with the wind. That is Americato me. Not just the movement for civil rights, but the endlessstruggle to respond with decency, dignity and a sense ofbrotherhood to all the challenges that face us as a nation as awhole."
And then he says this: "That is a story, inessence, of my life, of the path to which I've been committedsince I turned from a boy to a man and to which I remaincommitted today, a path that extends beyond the issue of racealone, beyond class as well, and gender and age and every otherdistinction that tends to separate us as human beings rather thanbring us together. The path involves nothing less than thepursuit of the most precious and pure concept I have ever known,an ideal I discovered as a young man that has guided me like abeacon ever since. A concept called 'the beloved community.'"That is the America we are trying to create. That is the AmericaJohn Lewis and his comrades on this day 35 years ago gave us thechance to build for our children.
Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)