President likens King to Founding Fathers Clinton at Ebenezer Church says slain rights leader redeemed nation's purpose

January 16, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA -- On what would have been the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 67th birthday, President Clinton used the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church yesterday to summon Dr. King's spirit to meet the challenges of our time.

Mr. Clinton hailed the slain apostle of nonviolence, brotherhood and racial justice as the equal of America's Founding Fathers, saying: "He redeemed the moral purpose of the United States."

Leaving partisan rhetoric to some of the speakers who preceded him, Mr. Clinton instead exhorted his audience to follow Dr. King's example by trying to bring more understanding and civility to everyday life.

His appeal came at a time when recent events -- including the O. J. Simpson verdict and the Million Man March -- have highlighted America's continuing racial divide, nearly 28 years after Dr. King's death at the age of 39.

"Dr. King said that men hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other. They don't know each other because they can't communicate with each other. They can't communicate with each other because they're separated from each other," Mr. Clinton said.

"The sad lesson of our experience is that sometimes we can be standing next to one another and still be separated from each other, miles and miles away in our minds."

The main speaker among two dozen at a service lasting almost four hours, Mr. Clinton took the pulpit to cheers of "four more years."

Most speakers praised Dr. King's courage, vision, and humanity as a lasting example of America's highest values, but some comments were more politically and topically pointed.

The church erupted in applause at remarks by Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who had been beaten and arrested by police as a young civil rights worker at Dr. King's side.

Mr. Lewis said fervently that if Dr. King had the courage to face police dogs, fire hoses and racists like Birmingham, Ala., police Chief Bull Connor, "We should have the courage to stand up and face Newt Gingrich here in Georgia."

House Speaker Gingrich represents a congressional district outside Atlanta.

Ebenezer Baptist Church is rich with the history of Dr. King. His birthplace at 501 Auburn Ave. -- for years the Main Street of black Atlanta -- is less than one block away, and his tomb is on the church grounds. Mr. Clinton placed a wreath at the foot of the tomb after the service.

Dr. King's stint as Ebenezer's pastor, following his maternal grandfather and his father "Daddy" King, put three generations of his family in the pulpit here for 81 years. In the 1960s, Dr. King's leadership of the civil rights movement made the church an important meeting place and organizing center.

In coming here President Clinton also had a more narrowly political point to make in this presidential election year. African-Americans are among Mr. Clinton's most loyal supporters, and this trip was partly an effort to reach out to them.

White House background information noted that the unemployment rate for adult blacks dipped to 7.8 percent in November, far below the 12.6 percent when Mr. Clinton took office.

Mr. Clinton later toured Atlanta's nearly finished Olympic stadium, which will be the primary site of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in July.

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