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Martin Luther King Day

Location: Washington, DC

MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY -- (Senate - January 12, 2007)

Mr. McCONNELL. Madam President, this Monday we will celebrate the life and legacy of one of America's greatest heroes, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King dreamt of an America where, as he so profoundly put it, all of America's children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. By sharing his dream with the rest of us, Dr. King literally awoke a nation.

I remind my colleagues this also will be the first observance of Martin Luther King Day when his lovely wife, Coretta Scott King, is no longer with us. She kept the dream alive after Dr. King's tragic assassination in 1968. With her passing last year, we lost the first lady of America's civil rights movement.

I remember all too well the days before Dr. King and the civil rights movement lit a fire across this country. Many parts of America were split into two separate nations, and they were certainly not equal. As a child growing up in Alabama and later in Kentucky, I remember segregated lunch counters. I remember separate water fountains.

I am proud to say that as a young man I was present for not just one but two significant events in the life of Dr. King. On August 28, 1963--a Wednesday, without a cloud in the sky--more than 200,000 people gathered on the Mall here in Washington to protest racial inequality and to hear Dr. King give what would be his most remembered speech.

I was an intern at the time for Congressman Gene Snyder of Kentucky, and so I went outside and stood on the Capitol steps.

I could see up the length of the entire Mall, and see the crowd that had gathered there. I supported Dr. King and his cause, and wanted to witness what I knew would be a pivotal point in history.

What none of us knew at the time, Mr. President, is that history was almost denied hearing Dr. King say, ``I have a dream.' His scripted remarks for that day did not include the stirring conclusion to his speech.

But when he was about to conclude his remarks and sit down, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson cried out, ``Tell them about your dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!'

So Dr. King drew from his past speeches and sermons, and in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, he issued the greatest declaration of freedom since Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation a century earlier.

Dr. King's words moved a nation. And the next summer I returned to Washington to intern for the great Kentucky Senator John Sherman Cooper. That year, Senator Cooper worked hard to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After my internship, I went on to the University of Kentucky School of Law, and returned to Washington in August of 1965 to pay my old boss and mentor a visit. It is thanks to him that I had my second encounter--not exactly close up, but my second encounter with Dr. King.

All that summer, Senator Cooper had been a key proponent of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and on August 4 it passed the Senate and was sent to President Johnson for his signature.

As I sat waiting for the Senator, he suddenly emerged from his office and motioned for me to follow him. He led me to the Capitol Rotunda, where President Johnson was about to sign the Voting Rights Act.

I'll never forget the President's sheer physical presence in that room. The room was packed with people, but LBJ was bigger than anyone in there. Every good history book describes him as a larger-than-life, imposing man, and they are all correct. His commanding figure almost filled the rotunda.

But there was another figure there, not as large but just as significant.

Here in this Capitol, Dr. King stood by the President and witnessed the signing of the Voting Rights Act--an act that would not have gained America's support without his efforts.

With its enactment, the promise of the 14th amendment, extending the franchise to newly freed slaves, was finally realized. Sadly, it was a hundred years too late.

I do not believe this country's march towards liberty and equality, and away from racial injustice and division, would have been possible without Dr. King.

It would not have been possible without his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott, which first began to ignite what he called ``a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.'

It would not have been possible without his plea to America in front of the Lincoln Memorial, when he said:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

It would not have been possible without his enlisting all of us, Black and White, in the cause of freedom when he said, ``Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men.'

Dr. King's faith and courage continue to inspire America. Like Moses, he led his people from the dark night of bondage to the promised land.

Through courage, Dr. King persevered even in the face of death. Constant threats were made on his life. Many times his travel plans were interrupted by bomb threats.

No one would have blamed Dr. King if, fearing for his life, he had retreated from public view. But he refused to.

In 1958 in Harlem, a woman stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener, and the blade came so close to his heart that doctors told the reverend that if he had even sneezed, he would have died.

Dr. King recalled that attack 10 years later in Memphis, in what would be his final speech. ``I am so glad that I didn't sneeze,' he told a crowd of 2,000. ``I'm just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding.'

Dr. King would die in hours, not from a letter opener, but from an assassin's bullet. As he spoke, it seemed he knew his fate was preordained, and he was at peace with it.

``I've seen the promised land,' Dr. King continued. ``I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight.'

America has traveled far since the civil rights movement, to reach that promised land. It's been a difficult journey, and the journey is not yet over.

Dr. King said:

I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness, man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearance of the world there is a benign power.

Those words serve to remind us that no matter the difficulty or the distance of our journey, our destination is clear, thanks to the foundation laid by Dr. King. That destination is liberty and justice for all.

I yield the floor.

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