Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Day
Monday, January 17, 2000

It is humbling to return to the Ebenezer Baptist Church - to join the King family once again on this high ground of our history and our hopes.

In the years of my life, I have stood in many places.

I stood on the steps of the United States Capitol, to be sworn in as Vice President of the United States.

I stood in communities devastated by poverty and crime. Then I stood on the rostrum of the United States Senate and cast tie-breaking votes to pass an economic program and renew our prosperity - to close the gun show loophole, and try to reduce a little more the chances of a madman with a gun shooting on our streets, or our playgrounds, or ever again in this church.

Last week, I presided over the United Nations Security Council, and brought America's pledge of aid to fight the sweeping pain of H.I.V.-AIDS in Africa.

I was moved and humbled to be in each of those places. But in a moral sense, no honor is so great as to stand and speak from here, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the heart and conscience of America.

It was 40 years ago this month that Dr. King ascended to this pulpit. From here, he sent his words and ideals into peaceful battle -- and turned the tide of history.

From here, again and again, he summoned us to “hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate.”

This pulpit, this simple wooden structure with these few steps, is sacred ground in this land of liberty.

And we must preserve this place, as well as the spirit of this place, for future generations. So first of all today, I can announce that in addition to the half million dollars we committed last year through our Save America's Treasures initiative, another half million in private funds has now been donated to restore this house of worship, and conserve it as the national treasure it is, for as long as this nation exists.

I want to pay tribute to two generous women who were active in the struggle, but wish to remain anonymous, because they have made this gift on behalf of all who sat in, who marched, who raised their voices, who gave their hands and their hearts. And they hope to inspire a new generation of Americans to carry on the cause.

I am also proud to announce, today, on Dr. King's birthday, that we will ask Congress for one and a half million dollars to preserve and maintain his birthplace - which is literally the cradle of the civil rights movement.

We must honor and uphold the dreamer. For we have come many miles toward justice, but have not yet fulfilled the dream.

In the two years since I last stood in this pulpit, we have made further strides together that should be measured today.

In those two years, African-American unemployment has fallen to the lowest level in history. African-American poverty has fallen to the lowest level in history.

And African-American child poverty has fallen to the lowest level in history.

In those two years, African-American home-ownership has risen to an all-time high.

And in those two years, we have continued to surpass every past mark for appointment of African Americans to Cabinet seats, judgeships, and other high-ranking posts.

If Dr. King were with us now, I believe he would celebrate our gains, because they nourish our dreams, and then he would summon us on. And he, above all others, would turn us to the hard work that is still undone, and he would point out the rare moment, pregnant with possibility, now before us.

We have a chance and a challenge that comes to only a few generations -- to open a new era of progress, so that we can keep Dr. King's promise that our bright yesterdays will be transformed into brighter tomorrows.

We can, and we must, as he said, “move on in these powerful days…to make America what it ought to be.”

To build on our beginnings - and lift up the one in five children still living below the poverty level.

To teach our children well - so that never again will there be urban communities where 40 percent of the students who enter high school never graduate. Let us open doors of opportunity for them - so they too can dream and reach for their dreams.

Let us insist that liberty is indivisible -- so that no Asian-American or Latino or African-American will be stopped while driving a car just because of his or her physical appearance. Racial profiling is a scar on the face of America.

Let us defeat the forces of hate -- so that never again will any American be dragged to his death behind a pick-up truck by the demonic force of racial hatred.

In my faith tradition, the true prophet of God's message for humankind is the one who comes forth to say: I have been called, as we have all been called, to bring good news to the poor. To bring healing to the sick. To mend the broken-hearted. To speak out clearly on behalf of the oppressed.

Dr. King reminded us that prophetic truth is marching on.

He taught us that there is no such thing as partial freedom. All of our people must be free from economic privation, or none of our people will be fully free. In his last speech, delivered from the pulpit of Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee - when he told of his vision from the mountaintop - he reminded us of the urgent need to build “a greater economic base.”

So we must keep our prosperity going - not for the primary benefit of those who already have the most - but to profit at last those who as yet have so little. Like Dr. King, we do not seek to comfort the comfortable; we do not seek to give away our hard-won surplus to the powerful few, but to use it to establish justice and opportunity for the many.

Once, there was a dream, shining and distant. Now the day that once seemed far away has risen within our vision, and lies within our reach.

In the dawning light of this new day, I see good jobs and thriving businesses in every neighborhood. I hear every child waking up to the embrace of a whole and healthy family, secure in a safe and vibrant community.

I see a hopeful day, when the single mothers who have sacrificed so much have full access to the quality care for their children that affords them the opportunity to both earn a living and shower their children with love and attention.

I see a day of revolutionary improvement in our public schools - brought about with millions finding the truest path out of poverty through the classroom door.

I see a day when we Americans affirm our teachers, instead of blaming them. A day when we call our best young people to the vocation of teaching, treat them like the professionals they are, and reward them appropriately.

Would all the teachers who are here please stand? We honor you today, as we should every day. You are heroes.

And I say to all of you, if we care about an equal America, now is not the time to divert public money from public schools, where ninety percent of America's children are educated. Now is not the time to bemoan the failures and give up on reform. Now is the time for revolutionary improvements in our public schools - and a shared commitment to make them the best in the world.

I see a day -- and I tell you that day is coming - when we will achieve, in ways both practical and bold, health coverage for every child in America, and then health coverage for every American.

Dr. King believed that no one should have to want for medical care when they are old or sick. No one should have their health determined by their wealth.

And I see a day when we strengthen Medicare and Medicaid - which were created in Dr. King's lifetime, and must not be torn down in ours.

I see a day when we banish violence from our streets - when we take guns away from children and criminals, and make our schools and neighborhoods sanctuaries of safety and peace. A child can't reach for his -dreams if he's ducking for cover.

I believe we as a people can reach the days of our dream. I believe, in my heart, that today's prosperity offers not only a chance, but a moral command - to create an America that lives up to the lessons and legacy of Dr. King's life.

And I believe that for all the progress we have made in our nation's policies, we must renew our commitment to build Dr. King's “beloved community” and overcome the forces of complacency, indifference, fear of difference, and the racial hatred that embitters too many human hearts.

These forces are all too real. Their power grows when we ignore them.

I hear some in America arguing that our nation's historic struggle for justice and equality is over - that we have already reached the promised land -- that we now have a color-blind society.

They're confusing the wilderness with Canaan.

Like thirsty men too long in the desert, they see fountains in the sand. They gaze at the shimmering mirage of a city on a hill. But their eyes are playing tricks on them. Our journey is not over. The city we seek still lies ahead - beyond the horizon of justice.

This is what Dr. King would have called moral blindness. It is a condition that affects the heart as well as the eyes. Those who suffer from it have the capacity to look and not see.

They look at African American poverty, and diminished opportunity, and increased infant mortality, and unequal law enforcement, and they don't really see a cause for affirmative action. They don't feel any need to confirm Bill Lann Lee. They don't see the need to aggressively remove the barriers of discrimination that are still all around us.

Yes, they have eyes, but they do not see. They do not see that we must live together and advance together.

Let us transcend what separates us, and cherish what we have in common. For he “who serves my father as a child is surely kin to me.”

Today, 32 years after we lost him, America still needs the soaring dream of Martin Luther King.

Martin, where are you? We need your prophetic voice - and we hear it now, even from the grave, the words and the ideals that will never die.

We need those thundering words; we need those righteous ideals. As we have been reminded:

“We shall overcome” must be more than a memory from the past. It must be a resolve to find the true America at last.

“We shall overcome” has got to be more than a frame of mind; it must be a commitment to leave no child behind.

“We shall overcome” has got to be more than a freedom song; it must be a God-given faith that right will conquer wrong.

“We shall overcome” has got to be more than a line we sing; it must be a fight to make things right - so all God's children can hear the freedom bell ring.

And then “the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”

And as Dr. King revealed in his life: here in this world, God's will must be our work. So with God's grace, and in the unquenchable light of Martin Luther King Jr.'s memory, let us go forward to finish the job. Thank you.

Other Vice President Speeches

The 50th Anniversary of the Outbreak of the Korean War

U.S. Military Academy Commencement, West Point

Remarks at Anti-Defamation League

National Prayer Breakfast

Oklahoma City National Memorial Dedication

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Day

Memorial for Senator Albert Gore Senior

Union University Luncheon Honoring Pauline LaFon Gore

Third Annual Farm Journal Conference

Public Service Recognition Week

Harvard Commencement Day, 1994

Remarks at the Funeral for Mayor Tom Bradley

All-American Cities Event

Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day 1998

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