WASHINGTON — President Reagan said today that even those who disagreed with the late Martin Luther King "now recognize that the changes he helped bring about were right and . . . made our country stronger."
The President made the remarks in a television speech from the White House beamed by cable and satellite to high school students across the country on the occasion of the civil rights leader's birthday.
Reagan, who originally opposed a King holiday, has proclaimed Monday a federal holiday to honor him.
"Even those who had disagreements with Dr. King now recognize that the changes he helped bring about were right and, in the long run, made our country stronger," Reagan said. "But the cleansing process is not easy. We needed such an individual to mobilize our people and organize a movement that would touch the conscience of our nation.
'Job . . . Ours to Finish'
"Today," the President added, "the job that Martin Luther King Jr. started is ours to finish. We're counting on you, the young people of the United States, to have the courage and commitment to do what is right."
Without referring to the recent racial strife at Howard Beach, N.Y., specifically, Reagan said: "As unfortunate events have demonstrated, we cannot be complacent about racism and bigotry. And I would challenge all of you to pledge yourselves to building an America where incidents of racial hatred do not happen because racism has been banned not just from the lawbooks, but from the hearts of the people.
"You should accept nothing less than making yours a generation free of bigotry, intolerance and discrimination," he declared.
Reagan said "a good place to start" would be to abjure racial, ethnic or religious slurs that are "vulgar, mean spirited."
'Must Remain Vigilant'
But then, injecting his own philosophy of opposing affirmative action programs, Reagan declared: "We still must remain vigilant that government policies do not . . . stand in the way of the upward mobility of any citizen. Here again, this isn't a job for government. It's a job for you."
Nine states have still refused to recognize King with a paid day off for state workers, and in Arizona last week new Republican Gov. Evan Mecham fulfilled a campaign promise by rescinding an order for the holiday.
During a news conference Oct. 19, 1983, Reagan was asked about charges by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that King had communist associations and sympathies and whether he agreed with Helms.
Reagan replied: "We'll know in about 35 years, won't we?" The answer, which referred to the declassification of secret Justice Department files dealing with King, touched off a storm of protest and Reagan later made a telephone call to King's widow, Coretta, trying to explain his remark.