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FEMA Director speaks about the meaning of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday

Release date: 
January 12, 2000
Release Number: 

Washington, DC -- Next week marks the 15th national observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. And what an American day-what an American event-that celebration is. Martin Luther King lived a thoroughly American life. He forced a nation to confront its own flaws. He showed each of us an awful injustice.

But he also believed that the same nation that permitted this injustice also contained the system-the spirit-to make it right. In showing us what was wrong with America, he proved how much was right. In the times in which he lived-the manner in which he died-he would not have been blamed for being bitter at his country. Dr. King chose to love it instead. Instead of leaving us to our comforts, Dr. King challenged us to be better. Rather than permitting us to rest still, he chose to lead.

So how appropriate it is-how American it is-that we celebrate his life-that we celebrate those who challenge us-that we commemorate the lives of people who lead. We do so because Americans are a restless people-proud of who we are, but always determined to be something better, to reach for someplace higher. That is the challenge to which we dedicate ourselves on Martin Luther King Day.

In the spirit of a restless nation and the example of a courageous leader, we commit ourselves to make this holiday a day to remember. To celebrate. To act. To make it not a day off, but a day on. We make this a day on because even though so much of Dr. King's dream has been achieved, so much work remains unfinished.

At FEMA, we carry Dr. King's work forward by helping people take control of their own destinies-by helping them become safer in their own homes and more vibrant in their own communities.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was on a mission that could be likened to a three-man relay race. First he ran his lap around the track, carrying the baton-which represents the good he was trying to do. At the appropriate moment, he hands the baton to us, and we begin our journey around the track. Finally, the time will come when we must place the baton safely in the hands of the future: our children. But as any track coach will testify, relay races are won or lost in the transfer of the baton. There is a critical moment when all can be lost by a fumble or miscalculation. If we fail, it will probably happen in the exchange between generations.

So let's pass the baton safely. We can begin by setting an example for our children-by making Martin Luther King Day a day on-a day to work for that dream.We can dedicate ourselves to volunteer work next Monday-as many people will at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, a shelter for men and women here in D.C. Whether there or in your own home, do your part to work for Dr. King's dream. Because he would have insisted on it.

Had Dr. King reached his 71st birthday next week, he would have made it a day on. He would challenge us to continue working for his dream, and he would insist that we reach for new dreams. He reached deep inside us and found the best in a nation that had showed him its worst. Dr. King challenged us. He made us better.

His birthday is an American day. A celebration of an American hero. Let's make it a day on, not a day off-a day to celebrate his dream, a day to dream our own dreams, and a day to work for both.

Dr. King handed the baton to us. Let's carry it for our lap-then pass it to our children. How American that would be. And how American it would be to devote our lives to the dream for which he gave his own.

Last Updated: 
March 29, 2016 - 20:05
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