Dr. King, was a leader -- many would argue an indispensable man -- in the mid-twentieth century struggle for racial equality in America. It was a struggle that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 50th anniversary of which we celebrated last year. That act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.
When President Ronald Reagan, on November 2, 1983, signed into law the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday he reminded his listeners that—
"Martin Luther King was born in 1929 in an America where, because of the color of their skin, nearly one in ten lived lives that were separate and unequal…taught in segregated schools…could find only poor jobs, toiling for low wages…refused entry into hotels and restaurants, made to use separate facilities. In a nation that proclaimed liberty and justice for all, too many black Americans were living with neither."
President Reagan went on to remark that “Dr. King had awakened something strong and true, a sense that true justice must be colorblind.” And Mr. Reagan pointed to both the progress made -- and yet to be made -- in the struggle for an America that lives up to her noble sentiment that all men are created equal, citing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Reagan, as he so often did, then called on Americans to embrace and enlarge upon their better nature, and exhorted his listeners—
"But most important, there was not just a change of law; there was a change of heart. The conscience of America had been touched. Across the land, people had begun to treat each other not as blacks and whites, but as fellow Americans.
"But traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King's dream comes true, and in his words, 'All of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, '... land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'"