(1993) William J. Clinton, “The Freedom to Die”

Bill Clinton
Public Domain Image
Bill Clinton, 1993
Image Ownership: Public Domain

On November 13, 1993, President Bill Clinton traveled to Memphis to address 5,000 African American ministers at the national headquarters of the Church of God in Christ.  Speaking from the pulpit where in 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his last sermon, Clinton used the occasion to urge the ministers to celebrate the King legacy and to continue to fight for the goals Dr. King had pursued until his untimely death.  The Clinton speech, which specifically addressed the problem of crime and violence in black America, appears below.

By THE GRACE OF GOD and your help, last year, I was elected President of this great country. I never dreamed that I would ever have a chance to come to this hallowed place where Martin Luther King gave his last sermon. I ask you to think today about the purpose for which I ran and the purpose for which so many of you worked to put me in this great office. I have worked hard to keep faith with our common efforts-to restore the economy, to reverse the politics of helping only those at the top of our totem pole and not the hard-working middle class or the poor, to bring our people together across racial and regional and political lines, to make a strength out of our diversity instead of letting it tear us apart, to reward work and family and community, and try to move us forward into the 21st Century.

I have tried to keep faith. Thirteen percent of all my presidential appointments are African Americans and there are five African Americans in the Cabinet of the United States-two-and-a-half times as many as have ever served in the history of this great land.

I have sought to advance the right to vote with the Motor-Voter Bill supported so strongly by all the churches in our country. And next week, it will be my great honor to sign the Restoration of Religious Freedoms Act-a bill supported widely by people across all religions and political philosophies, to put back the real meaning of the Constitution, to give you and every other American the freedom to do what is most important in your life-to worship God as your spirit leads you.

But, what I really want to say to you today, my fellow Americans, is that . . . unless we do something about crime and violence and drugs that is ravaging the community, we will not be able to repair this country.

If Martin Luther King-who said, “Like Moses, I am on the mountain top and I can see the Promised Land, but I’m not going to be able to get there with you. But we will get there”-if he were to re-appear by my side today and give us a report card on the last 25 years, what would he say?

You did a good job, he would say, voting and electing people who formerly were not electable because of the color of their skin. You have more political power-and that is good. You did a good job, he would say, letting people who have the ability to do so, live wherever they want to live, go wherever they want to go in this great country.

You did a good job, he would say, elevating people of color into the ranks of the United States Armed Forces to the very top or into the very top of our government. You did a very good job. He would say, You did a good job creating a Black middle class of people who really are doing well, and the middle class is growing more among African Americans than among non-African Americans. You did a good job in opening opportunity. But he would say, I did not live and die to see the American family destroyed. I did not live and die to see I3-year-old boys get automatic weapons and gun down nine-year-olds just for the kick of it. I did not live and die to see young people destroy their own lives with drugs and then build fortunes destroying the lives of others. That is not what I came here to do.

I fought for freedom, he would say, but not for the freedom of people to kill each other with reckless abandonment, not for the freedom of children to have children and the fathers of the children to walk away from them and abandon them, as if they don’t amount to anything. I fought for people to have the right to work, but not to have whole communities and people abandoned.  This is not what I lived and died for.

My fellow Americans, he would say, I fought to stop white people from being so filled with hate that they would wreak violence on black people. I did not fight for the right of black people to murder other black people with reckless abandonment.

The other day, the Mayor of Baltimore, a dear friend of mine, told me a story of visiting the family of a young man who had been killed-15 years old—on Halloween. He always went out with little-bitty kids so they could trick-or treat safely. And across the street from where they were walking on Halloween, a 14-year-old-boy gave a 13-year-old boy a gun and dared him to shoot the 18 year old-boy-and he shot him dead.

In Washington, DC, where I live-your nation’s capitol, the symbol of freedom throughout the world-look how that freedom is being exercised. The other night, a man came along the street and grabbed a one-year-old child and put the child in his car. The child may have been the child of the man. And two people were after him and they chased him in the car and they just kept shooting with reckless abandonment-knowing that baby was in the car. And they shot the man dead, and a bullet went through his body into the baby’s body and blew the little booty off the child’s foot.

The other day on the front page of our paper, the nation’s capitol-Are we talking about world peace or world conflict? You know, a big article on the front page of the Washington Post about an 11 -year-old child planning her funeral. “These are the hymns I want sung. This is the dress I want to wear. ~know I’m not going to live very long.” That is not the freedom-the freedom to die before you’re a teenager is not what Martin Luther King lived and died for.

More than 37,000 people die from gunshot wounds in this country every year. Gunfire IS the leading cause of death in young men. And now that we’ve all gotten so cool that everybody can get a semi-automatic weapon, a person shot now is three times more likely to die than 15 years ago, because they’re likely to have three bullets in them. A hundred-and-sixty-thousand children stay home from school every day because they are scared they will be hurt in their school. The other day, I was in California at a town meeting, and a handsome young man stood up and said, “Mr. President, my brother and I, we don’t belong to gangs. We don’t have guns. We don’t do drugs. We want to go to school. We want to be professionals. We want to work hard. We want to do well. We want to have families. And we changed our school, because the school we were in was so dangerous. So, when we showed up to the new school to register, my brother and I were standing in line, and somebody ran in the school and started shooting a gun, and my brother was shot down standing right in front of me at the safer school.” The freedom to do that kind of thing is not what Martin Luther King lived and died for. Not what people gathered m this hallowed church for the night before he was assassinated in April of 1968. If you had told anybody who was here in that church on that night that we would abuse our freedom in that way, they would have found it hard to believe. And I tell you, it is our moral duty to turn it around.

And now, I think, finally, we have a chance. Finally, I think, we have a chance. We have a pastor here from New Haven, Connecticut. I was in his church, with Reverend Jackson, when I was running for President, on a snowy day in Connecticut, to mourn the deaths of children who had been killed in that city. And afterward, we walked down the street for more than a mile in the snow. Then, the American people were not ready. People would say, “Oh, this is a terrible thing, but what can we do about it?” Now, when we read that foreign visitors come to our shores and are killed at random in our fine state of Florida, when we see our children planning their funerals, when the American people are finally coming to grips with the accumulated waste of crime and violence and the breakdown of family and community and the increase in drugs and the decrease in jobs, I think, finally, we may be ready to do something about it.

And there is something for each of us to do. There are changes we can make from the outside in-that’s the job of the President and the Congress and the governors and the mayors and the social service agencies. And then, there are some changes we’re going to have to make from the inside out, or the others won’t matter. That’s what that magnificent song was about, isn’t it?

Sometimes, there are no answers from the outside in. Sometimes, all of the answers have to come from the values and the’ stirrings and the voices that speak to us from within.

So, we are beginning. We are trying to pass a bill to make our people safer, to put another 100,000 police officers on the streets, to provide boot camps instead of prisons for young people who could still be rescued, to provide more safety in our schools, to restrict the availability of these awful assault weapons, to pass the Brady Bill and at least require people to have their criminal background checked before they get a gun, and to say, if you’re not old enough to vote and you’re not old enough to go to war, you ought not to own a handgun and you ought not to use one unless you’re on a target range.

We want to pass a health care bill that will make drug treatment available for everyone. And we also have to do it-we have to have drug treatment and education available to everyone, and especially those who are in prison, who are coming out.

We cannot-I submit to you-repair the American community and restore the American family until we provide the structure, the values, the discipline, and the reward that work gives.

So, I say to you, we have to make a partnership-all the government agencies, all the business folks . But where there are no families, where there is no order, where there is no hope, where we are reducing the size of armed services because we have won the Cold War, who will be there to give structure, discipline, and love to these children? You must do that and we must help you. The scripture says, You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world,” that, “If your light shines before men, they will give glory to the Father in Heaven.” That is what we must do. That is what we must do. How would we explain it to Martin Luther King if he showed up today and said, Yes, we won the Cold War. Yes, the biggest threat that all of us grew up under Communism and nuclear war-Communism is gone; nuclear war receding. Yes, we developed all of these miraculous technologies. Yes, we all got a VCR in our home. It’s interesting. Yes, we get 50 channels on the cable. Yes, without regard to race, if you work hard, play by the rules, you get into a service academy or a good college, you’ll do just great. How would we explain to him all these kids getting killed and killing each other? How would we justify the things that we permit that no other country in the world would permit? How could we explain that we gave people the freedom to succeed and we created conditions in which millions abuse that freedom to destroy the things that make life worth living and life itself? We cannot.

And so, I say to you today, my fellow Americans, you gave me this job, and we’re making progress on the things you hired me to do. But unless we deal with the ravages of crime and drugs and violence, and unless we recognize that it’s due to the breakdown of the family, the community, and the disappearance of jobs, and unless we say, Some of this cannot be done by government because we have to reach deep inside to the values, the spirit, the soul, and the truth of human nature, none of the other things we seek to do will ever take us where we need to go.

So, in this pulpit, on this day, let me ask all of you in your heart to say, We will honor the life and the work of Martin Luther King. We will honor the meaning of our church. We will somehow, by God’s grace, we will turn this around. We will give these children a future. We will take away their guns and give them books. We will take away their despair and give them hope. We will rebuild the families and the neighborhoods and the communities. We won’t make all the work that has gone on here benefit just a few. We will do it together by the grace of God.