Clinton with King family

Clinton leads tribute to King

Song, prayer fill emotional ceremony

January 15, 1996
Web posted at: 4:50 p.m. EST

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- President Clinton paid tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on what would have been the 67th birthday for the slain civil rights leader.

Clinton in church

About 1,500 people greeted the president at Ebenezer Baptist Church with lengthy applause. The crowd stood and chanted "Four more years!" as the president began his keynote address.

In a ceremony filled with song, speeches and prayer, Clinton, King's family, and other government and religious leaders spoke of King's life and legacy. (1M QuickTime movie)

Clinton said King forced the United States to "face our flaws and become a better nation."

"We fought a civil war over race and slavery. We lived through bitter days of lynching and riots. Still today we struggle to overcome," said Clinton. The president said King helped change the way the people define themselves. (145K AIFF sound or 145K WAV sound)

"We are stronger when we live together as a community, not as a swarm of isolated individuals," he said. "That is still the decision of America today."

Coretta King

King was killed in 1968. His birthday was made a federal holiday in 1986.

Clinton also said King would have supported sending U.S. troops as part of NATO's peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. He called on the nation to be a "drum major for peace" by helping stabilize the region.

The president called race and how America handles it the greatest challenges facing the United States as it moves into a new age. (196K AIFF sound or 196K WAV sound)


Before Clinton took the podium for his keynote speech, several others paid tribute to King at the historic church where King, his father and maternal grandfather served for 81 years.

King's widow, Coretta Scott King, told Clinton she admires the way he has "stood for the principles of decency," and asked Clinton to "convey our appreciation to Mrs. Clinton, a truly great first lady, very much in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt."

Another speaker was Ayinde Jean-Baptiste, whose fiery eloquence electrified the crowd at the Million Man March in Washington in October. The 12-year-old Chicago boy led a litany during Monday's ecumenical service. (213K AIFF sound or 213K WAV sound)


Clinton shook the boy's hand when he was finished, and the crowd applauded enthusiastically.

Other speakers included comedian Dick Gregory, who jokingly chiding Clinton for making House Speaker Newt Gingrich "a Negro for a day" by making him ride in the back of Air Force One during the state trip to the funeral of assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin last year.

The speaker hinted the slight had strained relations enough to contribute to the federal budget battle.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Maryland, who was recently named the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also spoke.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, who was an aide to King during the civil rights movement, made the most direct political appeal of the ceremony. Noting the bravery displayed by so many who participated in civil rights battles in the 1960s, Lewis drew cheers when he declared: "We should have the courage to stand up to Newt Gingrich in Georgia."

Clinton lays wreath

Gingrich, who as speaker has been leading the GOP drive to cut spending for many federal programs that affect poor blacks, represents a congressional district in north metro Atlanta.

After the ceremony, Clinton went to the nearby King Center, where he laid a wreath at King's tomb.

Monday's visit was politically significant for Clinton. He hopes to mobilize black voters in large numbers this year to help him win re-election without abandoning the multiracial coalition that forged his victory in 1992.

Related story:



AP and Reuters contributed to this report.

Copyright © 1996 Cable News Network, Inc.
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.