Public Papers of Ronald Reagan, 1986

Author: Ronald W. Reagan  | Date: January 15, 1986

Remarks to the Students and Faculty at Martin Luther King, Jr.
Elementary School
January 15, 1986

The President. Thank you all very much, and thank you, Robert Woodson. Thank you very much and a special hello again to my pen pal, Rudy Hines.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School has become very special to all of us at the White House since we began our partnership in education 2 years ago. It’s wonderful to be here today at your fine school. I just wanted to come by and say a few words about the man for whom your school was named. I have a hunch we can all learn a few things from his life and the things that he believed in and fought for, just as Mr. Woodson has told us already. I can’t help but feel there are some lessons we can all remember together.

You all know the facts of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, life. He was born in Atlanta on this day, January 15, 1929; that was 57 years ago. His mother’s maiden name was Alberta Christine Williams. His dad, Martin Luther King, was a minister of the Baptist church. Martin Luther King, Jr., went to Booker T. Washington High School, and then, as many of you will, I hope, he went on to college-to Morehouse College. He also became a minister and went to work with his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. After that, the story kind of heats up; the facts and events come thick and fast. The South was about to become the location of a great revolution, and young Martin Luther King, Jr., was about to become its most forceful and effective leader.

I wonder now if some of you know the names and places that for another generation, for your parents’ generation and your teachers’, are so well known. They will always be unforgettable. Montgomery, Alabama, and Selma and Birmingham, Little Rock, Arkansas—a lot of hearts were broken in those places, but a lot of history was made, too, and a lot of justice grew out of the pain that happened in those towns.

Montgomery is where a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to get up and give her seat to a white man on a bus. That was the beginning of the famous Montgomery bus boycott. Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of its leaders. He and his followers just refused to take the city buses anywhere as long as blacks had to sit in the back. They just wouldn’t accept it anymore. They said, "Enough." They walked everywhere; they’d walk for miles rather than take the bus. There was a phrase for what they were doing that was famous then. It was called peaceful protest—saying no in a peaceful way. And the protesters went to the courts, where one day in June, 6 months after the boycott began, a United States District Court made a ruling. They said that racial segregation on the city bus lines was unconstitutional; it was contrary to that great Constitution by which we all live in this country.

Later the Supreme Court, the highest, most important court in the whole country, would listen to similar cases and hand down more civil rights decisions. One big case was argued by a young lawyer picked by Dr. King himself. The young lawyer and another lawyer worked together without pay, and they won the case. And that young lawyer is my friend, Samuel Pierce, and I’m proud he is a member of our government as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Martin Luther King, Jr., first became famous in America during the Montgomery strike. It wasn’t an easy time for him. Abomb was thrown on the porch of his house, and it was only a matter of luck that no one was hurt. A crowd gathered, and the people were angry. And Dr. King came out and stood amid the broken glass and said some great words. He said: "We cannot solve this problem through violence. We must love our white brothers; we must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out across the centuries, ’Love your enemies.’ And that is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love."

Martin Luther King, Jr., pursued progress all over the country in freedom marches and on freedom rides, in speeches and demonstrations, at the pulpit and in private conversation. He was a much loved and—it’s sad to say—at that time, much hated. But I think it’s true that those who loved him and those who hated him were pretty much united in agreement on this: Martin Luther King, Jr., was right to insist that the civil rights movement be nonviolent. And he was brave. Your teachers won’t approve of my using the word I’m going to use now, but I have to. It’s the best word for it. It takes a lot of guts not to hit back when someone is hitting you, and he had that kind of guts. I hope that’s something you’ll be able to emulate in your lives.

And if you can emulate another thing about Martin Luther King, Jr., I would hope it would be his passion. He felt so strongly about things; he really cared. He really felt the injustice he talked about, and he really felt the dreams that he shared. You can see it in his words, in the way he used them.

We’ve all been hearing a lot of quotations from Dr. King the past few days, and I suppose the most famous is, "I have a dream." But the one I think of sometimes, the one that really shook you up in the days after his death, was the speech he gave at his home church, the Ebenezer Baptist, on February 4, 1968, just 2 months before he was shot. Perhaps you know that in those days before he died, he seemed to have a sense, a strange sense that the shadows were lengthening and that he didn’t have long. And in his speeches he seemed to be saying goodbye. And in this speech at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, he said: "Every now and then, I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral ... I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Just say that I was a drum major for justice." You know what a drum major is—the fellow that leads the band. He said that "I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind."

Well, those are great words: "I want to leave a committed life behind." I want my life to have meaning; I want it to be a statement. That’s a wonderful way to feel. In fact, I think it’s the only way to feel. Our country is different and better because that was his attitude. And that’s not just a phrase; our country is different and better; that’s a literal truth. Our country is different because Martin Luther King, Jr., made it better by the way he lived his life. And that’s why Dr. King’s birthday is now a national holiday for everyone in the country-because his contributions benefited all Americans.

And that gets me to my almost-last point. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, and I wanted to share it with you. It is this: The civil rights workers of the 1950’s and ’60’s—long before you were born—they won their great battle because America had a conscience that they could appeal to. Now, you know what a conscience is. It’s that thing that tells you the difference between right and wrong and that tries to get you to do right. And you know that bad feeling you get when you’ve done something wrong. That’s conscience, too. Well, America had a conscience, and it was a good, strong one. It wouldn’t let us hide from the truth, and it wouldn’t let us sleep until we all, together, as a whole country, admitted that all people are equal and that in America there should be no second-class citizens. Our national conscience told us to change and start to be fair. And we listened and changed, and we started to be fair.

Ultimately, the great lesson of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, life was this: He was a great man who wrested justice from theheart of a great country, and he succeeded because that great country had a heart to be seized. Martin Luther King, Jr., really helped make our nation freer. It’s not a perfect place; we still have a long way to go. There’s unfinished business, and we can’t rest until all prejudice is gone forever. But we’re a better, freer place; and now it’s up to you, as the future grownups of America, to use that freedom to make a better life.

And how do you make the best use of freedom? Well, you get a good education. When you get a good education, when you study hard and read your books and ask questions, then you can become anything. The outstanding men and women up here on the stage with me will all tell you that if you work hard you can make a wonderful future for yourself, you can have the most exciting job, travel all over the world, help your fellow man. An education is like a spaceship; it can take you anywhere.

And you know what I hope? The dream I have for each of you is that one day in the future, when you’re all grown up, you’ll all come back here and visit on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, birthday. And maybe someone up here will be making a speech, and they will introduce the next speaker with the words, "And now, the President of the United States." And they’ll turn, and they’ll be pointing at you, because you’ll be the President. Do you think that’s a good idea?
Audience. Yes!
The President. Are you going to study?
Audience. Yes!
The President. Going to get good marks?
Audience. Yes!
The President. Will you go to college?
Audience. Yes!

The President. Wonderful. That makes me so happy.

We’re all equal partners in this great experiment called democracy in America. And when we bow our heads today—and I hope all of us will—and say, "God bless Martin Luther King, Jr.," we’ll also be saying "God bless America." And may her conscience stay strong forever, and may her children always recognize that conscience and thank God for it.

I thank you so much for inviting me here today. This is where I wanted to be. So, thank you, my friends, and God bless you all. And now, if you don’t mind, I’m just going to take a second—I have to tell you a story, an experience of mine in my youth. I was playing football in a little college in Illinois, and this was back in the days before any Martin Luther Kings. He had just barely been born. But there were people with prejudice and hatred.

In our school, we had a young black man who came to school and who I remember-he’s departed this world now—but he’s probably the closest friend I ever had. And down on the line together, he played center, and I played right guard. And in those days, you didn’t have an offense and a defense; you played both ways. You stayed in the game till it was over. And he and I became, as I say, the closest of friends down there in the middle of the line, where things got rough and tough.

And one day we played a team that didn’t have any mix in its lineup. And playing opposite Burgie—his name was Franklin Burghardt, but my nickname for him was Burgie—playing opposite Burgie was a fellow that was filled with hatred and prejudice, and it was very obvious. And he was very vocal about it when we would line up against each other. He also played dirty against Burgie. In the huddle I looked across once and saw Burgie, and his lip was bleeding where he was biting it. He had already an injured knee before the game, and this fellow had found out about it-evidently he groaned at the wrong time-and he was using his dirty tactics to further hurt that knee. And Burgie was biting his lip to not show the pain. And in the huddle, we were so mad—and all of his teammates—we wanted to go after the fellow. And Burgie said, "No, this is my problem; this is my fight." And no one knew anything about it.

Well, Burgie played him all that game. And he didn’t play dirty; he played clean. He just played the hit-’em-hard kind of football that we’re taught and that’s within the rules. And by the middle of the fourth quarter his opponent, playing dirty with all of his dirty tricks, was literally staggering. And his coach had to send in a substitute for him. And he started off the field. Hewas wobbling as he started off. And halfway to the sideline he stopped, stood there for a minute, then he turned around. And he came staggering back, elbowed his way through the two teams as we stood there in the time-out waiting for play to resume, and up to Burgie and faced him. And then I saw he was crying; the tears were running down his face. And he stuck out his hand, and Burgie took it. And he grabbed it with his other hand, and then crying he said, "I just want you to know you’re the greatest human being I’ve ever met," and turned and left the field.

You see, just one individual with principles like that, like Dr. King and like Franklin Burghardt—a conversion right there from hatred to respect and even liking on the part of another man. Well, I just couldn’t go away without telling you that story. The world is so different today. And those of us who were a part of that revolution that Martin Luther King performed in, all of us, we are so happy for what has happened and so happy to see all of you here together in this different kind of an America. You keep it that way and keep making it better.

And now, before I leave, I want to present a plank—a plaque, I should say, to your principal, Bill Dalton, in commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, birthday. Thank you all again very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11 a.m. in the school auditorium. He was introduced by Robert L. Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.


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Chicago: Ronald W. Reagan, "Remarks to the Students and Faculty at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School," Public Papers of Ronald Reagan, 1986 in Federal Register Division. National Archives and Records Service, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Ronald Reagan, 1986 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1956-), P.1164 52–54. Original Sources, accessed August 17, 2022,

MLA: Reagan, Ronald W. "Remarks to the Students and Faculty at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School." Public Papers of Ronald Reagan, 1986, in Federal Register Division. National Archives and Records Service, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Ronald Reagan, 1986 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1956-), P.1164, pp. 52–54. Original Sources. 17 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Reagan, RW, 'Remarks to the Students and Faculty at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School' in Public Papers of Ronald Reagan, 1986. cited in , Federal Register Division. National Archives and Records Service, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Ronald Reagan, 1986 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1956-), P.1164, pp.52–54. Original Sources, retrieved 17 August 2022, from