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News Before It Happens

Bush’s MLK Day Speech, 2007

by DICK J. REAVIS

Atlanta, January 15, 2007

President George W. Bush revealed Monday that in his recent review of strategy options for the war in Iraq, he turned for inspiration not only to the Bible, but to the writings and speeches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The president’s remarks came in an address at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the former pulpit of Dr. King, whose birthday was marked in nation-wide ceremonies.

Bush’s message was transmitted live by FoxNews, whose footage was also fed to a Jumbotron mounted above the alcove where the Ebenezer choir was seated.

The president’s address was a highlight of this year’s King Day festivities in the city. It reflected a trend in recent years to elevate King’s stature with words of praise from living luminaries, especially those from Republican and military ranks.

As he began his review of American policy in Iraq, some two months ago, Bush said he was reassured by the words of a 1956 message King delivered in Birmingham, Alabama.

"When Rev. King told his audience that ‘the present tensions represent the necessary pains that accompany the birth of anything new,’ it was clear to me that he knew just what I was facing," Bush said.

"The Rev. King told us," he continued, "that ‘It is both historically and biologically true that there can be no birth and growth without birth and growing pains.’"

"We are seeing those birth and growth pains as democracy takes root in the Middle East," the president declared.

In a rebuff to detractors on the left, Bush said that "Those who advocate a course that I have called ‘cutting and running’ have not studied the wisdom of the Rev. King. Peace, he understood, cannot come as the fruit of cowardice or of the failure of will.

"As the great reverend warned us, so many years ago, ‘True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force-tension, confusion or war: it is the presence of some positive force-justice, good will and brotherhood."

"The seeds of that positive force," Bush added, "were planted in the dry soil of Basra and Baghdad when American troops liberated the Iraqi people in 2003, and those seeds are now germinating, having been watered by the sacrifice of our young men and women in uniform."

As he was nearing the end of his policy review in late December, Bush added, any hesitation he felt about the need for bold new military initiatives was swept aside when he found, in the text of a 1967 King speech at New York’s Riverside Baptist Church, counsel that "when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we most move on We must move past indecision to action."

"I faced a challenge, in deciding whether to boost assistance to our brothers and sisters who are struggling for democracy in Iraq," the president said.

"I decided that we must again come to their aid with all that we have, so that they, too, can in the words of the Rev. King, soon join us in proclaiming, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!"

Spotty applause from the some 1500 people in attendance, dignitaries and members of the Ebenezer congregation, accompanied these final lines of the president’s address.

Seated on the podium behind Bush was Dexter King, son the late civil rights pioneer, CEO of his father’s estate.

Earlier this year, the estate sold some 7,000 documents from Dr. King’s personal files to a group of Atlanta donors for $32 million, a figure that, many observers noted at the time, made King’s heirs the beneficiaries of Republican tax-reduction programs, especially measures shrinking inheritance and capital gains taxes.

Following Bush’s address, White House press spokesman Tony Snow announced that the president had ordered the Defense Department to seek licensing of the slogan "From indecision to action!" from the Riverside speech for use on an Army poster soliciting young African-American recruits.

Royalties will be paid to King’s estate for use of the phrase, Snow said.

As the King Day gathering was breaking up, the Jumbotron showed a videotape of Saddam Hussein, moments before his execution on December 30.

The president, Secret Service agents and several figures associated with the King family and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference-the group that King headed in life-gathered around Ebenezer’s Jumbotron as Hussein made his final allocution.

"It doesn’t matter with me now," the former dictator intoned, reading from a prepared text.

"I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land."

Saddam’s statement and the other events of the day did not go down well with all of those present.

"These memorials have made Dr. King into a kind of teddy bear," one disgruntled congregant said. "Now everybody is quoting him."

DICK J. REAVIS, an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University, was a summer volunteer for SCLC in Alabama during the mid 1960s. He can be reached at dickjreavis@yahoo.com.