WASHINGTON — President Reagan, who initially opposed creating a federal holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr., today hailed him as a brave and passionate "drum major for justice," a gutsy civil rights leader whose sacrifices made America "different, and better."
The President was celebrating the birthday of the slain civil rights leader, who would have been 57 today, with a visit to a grade school named for the slain minister in a predominantly black neighborhood of Washington.
In an address to students at Martin Luther King Elementary School, Reagan emphasized King's nonviolent approach to winning civil rights for blacks.
"Martin Luther King was right to insist that the civil rights movement be nonviolent. And he was brave," Reagan said. "It takes a lot of guts not to hit back when someone is hitting you--and he had that kind of guts."
'No in a Peaceful Way'
Reagan called King the most forceful and effective leader of what was to become a great American revolution, and said he used the tactic of "saying no in a peaceful way."
About 350 youngsters, almost all of them black, sat quietly on folded chairs in the school gymnasium as Reagan spoke. Some fidgeted; others were still. Red lettering on the white wall of the gym said, "Welcome, President Reagan."
Recalling for his young listeners the sites of the civil rights struggle--Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham and Little Rock--Reagan observed, "A lot of hearts were broken in those places, but a lot of history was made too, and a lot of justice grew out of the pain that happened in those towns."
The President said that although King's memory is often recalled through his "I have a dream" speech, he tends to recall a different speech that King made in which he said he wanted to be remembered as a "drum major for justice."
King 'Made It Better'
" 'Say that I was a drum major for peace. That I was a drum major for righteousness. . . . I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind,' " Reagan quoted King as saying.
"Our country is different, and better, because that was his attitude," Reagan said of King. "Our country is different because Martin Luther King Jr. made it better by the way he lived his life."
The President's appearance at the school highlighted his week devoted to tributes to King, although Reagan formerly opposed civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also originally was against the move to make King's birthday a national holiday.
The President once suggested at a news conference, "We'll know in about 35 years" (when FBI records are opened) whether King was a communist sympathizer.
He subsequently apologized to King's widow for the remark and several weeks later signed legislation establishing the holiday.