Bush Vows to Pursue King Dream : ‘We Must Not Fail,’ He Says on Holiday for Rights Leader

Times Staff Writer

President-elect Bush pledged Monday at a prayer breakfast honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that the slain civil rights leader’s “fight for equality, justice, freedom and peace will indeed be still pursued in the years to come and forevermore.”

Reflecting the unifying theme that he has adopted as he nears his decade-long goal of the presidency, Bush’s speech demonstrated a different tone on racial issues than that of President Reagan, who is ending his term on a rough-edged note over race relations. Bush emphasized that he has learned the lessons of King--and will follow them as President--and that the nation must do the same.

“What becomes of Martin Luther King’s dreams is up to us,” Bush said. “We must not fail him. We must not fail ourselves. And we must not fail the nation he loved so much and gave his life for. I understand that--five days before becoming President of the United States of America.”

On his final weekend in office, Reagan--who objected to the creation of a federal holiday to honor King--kicked up a small storm when he questioned the motives of today’s civil rights leaders.


“Sometimes I wonder if they really want what they say they want, because some of those leaders are doing very well leading organizations based on keeping alive the feeling that they’re victims of prejudice,” Reagan said in an interview on the CBS-TV program “60 Minutes” that was broadcast Sunday. Among others, the Rev. Jesse Jackson criticized the remark, saying the President “may be the worst civil rights President we’ve had in recent memory.”

Focused on Segregation

Bush made no reference to Reagan’s remarks, focusing on the years of segregation and the need to follow the direction King set rather than delivering an assessment of the current state of racial relations in the United States.

After running an election campaign that some said drew on racial fears by emphasizing prison furloughs and crime, Bush has taken pains in the weeks leading up to his inauguration Friday to reach out to varied groups of Americans and to build on his theme of creating a “kinder, gentler” America. He is also seeking to expand the number of blacks and other minorities, as well as women, in senior jobs, after representation of blacks in the upper reaches of government dropped sharply from the Jimmy Carter Administration to that of Reagan.

Among the blacks set to join the Administration are Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, chosen to be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Frederick McClure, a vice president of Texas Air Corp. who will be assistant to the President for legislative affairs--Bush’s chief representative to Congress.

McClure joined Bush on the dais at a Washington hotel Monday morning for the prayer breakfast of the Bush inauguration’s Afro-American Committee to read the White House proclamation declaring Monday a national holiday.

Bush, who won about 12% of the black votes cast in the November election, drew a portrait of King that avoided the suggestion made by Reagan in 1983 that a review of FBI files might show that King was a communist sympathizer.

King, who was assassinated in 1968, “lived a hero’s life. He dreamed a hero’s dreams. And he left a hero’s indelible mark on the mind and imagination of a great nation,” Bush said.

The civil rights leader, who would have been 60 years old Sunday, “destroyed segregation, transformed a nation’s history, restored a nation’s value, restored a nation’s virtue and realized a great people’s noblest promise.”

Bush continued:

“We resolve today, on this holiday and in this inaugural week, that our nation, our America, will indeed remember Martin Luther King Jr.; that his fight for equality, justice, freedom and peace will indeed be still pursued in the years to come and forevermore; that bigotry and indifference to disadvantage will find no safe home on our shores, in our public life, in our neighborhoods or in our home.

“Rev. King’s dream for his children and for ours will be fulfilled. This must be our mission together. It will, I promise, be my mission as President of the United States.”

Bush spent most of Monday, a national holiday, at his home. With selections for the most senior positions in his government completed, Bush’s next major goal is completion of his inaugural address and the filling of secondary, but still senior, positions in the new Administration.

He appeared to have settled on Donald J. Atwood Jr., vice chairman of General Motors Corp. who has overseen the company’s defense business, as deputy secretary of defense--a position that Bush and his advisers want to fill with a strong manager able to tame the Pentagon’s procurement jungle--and was said to be ready to name officials for several non-Cabinet federal agencies.

Because movers had begun to empty the vice presidential mansion for the move to the White House, Bush was forced to work on the inaugural address on makeshift furniture. “He’s working on a card table now,” one aide said.