WASHINGTON – President Bush hailed Martin Luther King Jr. Monday as one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, but said more must be done to ensure that his dream of equality becomes a reality.
"At the dawn of this new century, America can be proud of the progress we have made toward equality, but we all must recognize we have more to do," Bush said during a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "The reason to honor Martin Luther King is to remember his strength of character and his leadership, but also to remember the remaining work."
Bush told the crowd at the annual "Let Freedom Ring" performance that Congress must renew provisions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that are set to expire next year. The president had previously declined to support the renewal until last month, and the crowd erupted in applause when Bush insisted that it be renewed.
"We recommit ourselves to working for the dream that Martin Luther King gave his life for — an America where the dignity of every person is respected; where people are judged not by the color of their skin — by the content of their character; and where the hope of a better tomorrow is in every neighborhood in this country," Bush said.
The president helped honor the late Rosa Parks, who died last fall, with the John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award. Grammy-nominated gospel artist Yolanda Adams performed with a diverse choir made up of Georgetown University students and members of the Washington community.
Earlier, Bush visited the National Archives to see the original Emancipation Proclamation, which was on display for four days to mark the holiday weekend. Abraham Lincoln signed the document declaring the end of slavery in the midst of the Civil War on Jan. 1, 1863, and it is only occasionally brought out of storage because the poor quality of the paper and ink make it vulnerable to light.
"It seems fitting on Martin Luther King Day that I come and look at the Emancipation Proclamation in its original form," Bush said after putting on a pair of reading glasses to peer at the document kept in a glass case. "Abraham Lincoln recognized that all men are created equal. Martin Luther King lived on that admonition to call our country to a higher calling, and today we celebrate the life of an American who called Americans to account when we didn't live up to our ideals."
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, also paying tribute to the late civil rights leader, said he believes civil rights "is not a black, brown or white issue. It is a people's issue."
Gonzales said that as a parent and citizen and as "the attorney general for all Americans," he believes he has an obligation to help make the dream of equality come to fruition.
"I've lived that dream," he said, "and I must preserve and protect the hopes and opportunities that I have received for future generations."