Jan 19, 2017 By Michael W. Chapman
(CNSNews.com) – President Ronald Reagan signed the bill making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday into law on Nov. 2, 1983. Speaking from the Rose Garden of the White House that day, President Reagan highlighted the bus-boycott started by Dr. King in 1955 that ended segregation on public transportation in America.
Reagan also cited several other examples of MLK’s tremendous accomplishments towards ending racial division and noted that his cause was rooted in the teachings of the Bible – King was an ordained Baptist minister — about the dignity of every human being.
President Ronald Reagan signs into law the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, on Nov. 2, 1983. (AP)
“So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself,” said Reagan.
“And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King’s dream comes true, and in his words, ‘All of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘… land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'”
President Reagan’s full remarks are printed below, along with comments made by Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who attended the ceremony along with other members of the King family.
President Ronald Reagan: “Mrs. King, members of the King family, distinguished Members of the Congress, ladies and gentlemen, honored guests, I’m very pleased to welcome you to the White House, the home that belongs to all of us, the American people.
“When I was thinking of the contributions to our country of the man that we’re honoring today, a passage attributed to the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier comes to mind. “Each crisis brings its word and deed.” In America, in the fifties and sixties, one of the important crises we faced was racial discrimination. The man whose words and deeds in that crisis stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Martin Luther King was born in 1929 in an America where, because of the color of their skin, nearly 1 in 10 lived lives that were separate and unequal. Most black Americans were taught in segregated schools. Across the country, too many could find only poor jobs, toiling for low wages. They were refused entry into hotels and restaurants, made to use separate facilities. In a nation that proclaimed liberty and justice for all, too many black Americans were living with neither.
“In one city, a rule required all blacks to sit in the rear of public buses. But in 1955, when a brave woman named Rosa Parks was told to move to the back of the bus, she said, “No.” A young minister in a local Baptist church, Martin Luther King, then organized a boycott of the bus company—a boycott that stunned the country. Within 6 months the courts had ruled the segregation of public transportation unconstitutional.
“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” – Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., from his April 16, 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail. (AP photo)
“Dr. King had awakened something strong and true, a sense that true justice must be colorblind, and that among white and black Americans, as he put it, “Their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom; we cannot walk alone.”
“In the years after the bus boycott, Dr. King made equality of rights his life’s work. Across the country, he organized boycotts, rallies, and marches. Often he was beaten, imprisoned, but he never stopped teaching nonviolence. “Work with the faith”, he told his followers, “that unearned suffering is redemptive.” In 1964 Dr. King became the youngest man in history to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Dr. King’s work brought him to this city often. And in one sweltering August day in 1963, he addressed a quarter of a million people at the Lincoln Memorial. If American history grows from two centuries to twenty, his words that day will never be forgotten. “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
“In 1968 Martin Luther King was gunned down by a brutal assassin, his life cut short at the age of 39. But those 39 short years had changed America forever. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had guaranteed all Americans equal use of public accommodations, equal access to programs financed by Federal funds, and the right to compete for employment on the sole basis of individual merit. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had made certain that from then on black Americans would get to vote. But most important, there was not just a change of law; there was a change of heart. The conscience of America had been touched. Across the land, people had begun to treat each other not as blacks and whites, but as fellow Americans.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Pastor Billy Graham, who supported Dr. King’s civil rights movement as early as 1953. King preached at Graham’s 1957 rally at Madison Square Garden and the two men became close friends. (Photo: Library of Congress)
“And since Dr. King’s death, his father, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr., and his wife, Coretta King, have eloquently and forcefully carried on his work. Also his family have joined in that cause.”
“Now our nation has decided to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by setting aside a day each year to remember him and the just cause he stood for. We’ve made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. And we should remember that in far too many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all.
“But traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King’s dream comes true, and in his words, “All of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘… land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'”
“Thank you, God bless you, and I will sign it.”
Mrs. Coretta Scott King: “Thank you, Mr. President, Vice President Bush, Majority Leader Baker and the distinguished congressional and senatorial delegations, and other representatives who’ve gathered here, and friends.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. (Photo: Library of Congress)
“All right-thinking people, all right-thinking Americans are joined in spirit with us this day as the highest recognition which this nation gives is bestowed upon Martin Luther King, Jr., one who also was the recipient of the highest recognition which the world bestows, the Nobel Peace Prize.
“In his own life’s example, he symbolized what was right about America, what was noblest and best, what human beings have pursued since the beginning of history. He loved unconditionally. He was in constant pursuit of truth, and when he discovered it, he embraced it. His nonviolent campaigns brought about redemption, reconciliation, and justice. He taught us that only peaceful means can bring about peaceful ends, that our goal was to create the love community.
“America is a more democratic nation, a more just nation, a more peaceful nation because Martin Luther King, Jr., became her preeminent nonviolent commander.
“Martin Luther King, Jr., and his spirit live within all of us. Thank God for the blessing of his life and his leadership and his commitment. What manner of man was this? May we make ourselves worthy to carry on his dream and create the love community. Thank you.”
MLK: A Great Conservative, Not a Liberal Firebrand
More than forty years ago, on August 28, 1963, a quarter million people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. They marched here for the cause of civil rights. And that day they heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, a speech in which he challenged America to fulfill her promise.
“I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’”
While we know of the speech, most people are unaware that King also penned one of the most eloquent defenses of the moral law: the law that formed the basis for his speech, for the civil rights movement, and for all of the law, for that matter.
In the spring of 1963, King was arrested for leading a series of massive non-violent protests against the segregated lunch counters and discriminatory hiring practices rampant in Birmingham, Alabama. While in jail, King received a letter from eight Alabama ministers. They agreed with his goals, but they thought that he should call off the demonstrations and obey the law.
King explained why he disagreed in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “One might well ask,” he wrote, “how can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer “is found in the fact that there are two kinds of laws: just laws … and unjust laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws,” King said, “but conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
How does one determine whether the law is just or unjust? A just law, King wrote, “squares with the moral law of the law of God. An unjust law … is out of harmony with the moral law.”
Then King quoted Saint Augustine: “An unjust law is no law at all.” He quoted Thomas Aquinas: “An unjust law is a human law not rooted in eternal or natural law.”
This is the great issue today in the public square: Is the law rooted in truth? Is it transcendent, immutable, and morally binding? Or is it, as liberal interpreters argue, simply whatever courts say it is? Do we discover the law, or do we create it?
Many think of King as a liberal firebrand, waging war on traditional values. Nothing could be further from the truth. King was a great conservative on this central issue, and he stood on the shoulders of Augustine and Aquinas, striving to restore our heritage of justice rooted in the law of God.
Were he alive today, I believe he’d be in the vanguard of the pro-life movement. I also believe that he would be horrified at the way in which out of control courts have trampled down the moral truths he advocated.
From the time of Emperor Nero, who declared Christianity illegal, to the days of the American slave trade, from the civil rights struggle of the sixties to our current battles against abortion, euthanasia, cloning, and same-sex “marriage,” Christians have always maintained exactly what King maintained.
King’s dream was to live in harmony with the moral law as God established it. So this Martin Luther King Day, reflect on that dream—for it is worthy of our aspirations, our hard work, and the same commitment Dr. King showed.
Before we leave you today, we want to invite you to join with thousands of Christians in prayer for life. The Colson Center has created the “21 Days of Prayer for Life” prayer guide. Along with daily prayers, it’s filled with moving stories that will inspire you to take up the mantle and stand for life. It’s great for individual prayer, family prayer, and for small groups.
(This commentary originally aired on August 28, 2003.)