President Bush paid tribute yesterday to two of America's most recognizable and politically influential black leaders of the past half-century -- the late Martin Luther King Jr. and retiring Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- at a Kennedy Center event honoring the life and legacy of the civil rights leader.
"By observing and honoring Dr. King's birthday, we teach the next generation lessons that must never be forgotten," Bush said at the afternoon ceremony. "We need our children to know how great the struggle for racial justice in our society has been, and how much work remains to be done."
President Bush, with Laura Bush, embraces Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at an event honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- AP)
Three days before his inauguration, the president praised the spiritual nature of King's fight for equality in the United States. "He believed and he knew that the teachings of Jesus stand in eternal judgment of oppression," Bush said. "He believed and he knew that the God who made us for freedom will bring us to freedom."
During the ceremony, Bush presented Powell and his wife, Alma Powell, with the John Thompson Legacy of a Dream Award, calling his secretary of state "one of the most effective and admired diplomats in America's history."
Although Powell has clashed with many inside the White House over Iraq policies, Bush said he picked the military veteran to head the State Department because "I wanted someone who believed deeply in the values of our country, and could share them with the world; a person of wisdom and decency; a leader who could bring out the best in people."
"I found all this and more in Colin Powell." Powell is retiring, and Bush nominated national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, another prominent African American, to succeed him.
The award given to the Powells is named after the former coach of the Georgetown University men's basketball team. It is presented annually to a leader who exemplifies King's legacy.
Powell, the first black secretary of state, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and national security adviser, said King was a warrior of words, not weapons.
"Dr. King fought this war, not with weapons, but he fought it with truth. He fought it with honor," Powell said. "And what he did was not just something that was for black Americans. What Dr. King did that was so profound, that was so fundamental, is what he did for white Americans -- what he did for all Americans."
Bush praised King, who would have turned 76 on Jan. 15, for changing hearts and minds by realizing the "God we share is a source of our dignity as human beings and the basis for our equality."
"In the space of just a few years, through the power of his intellect, the truth of his words and the example of his courage, he left the country a different and better place and made his own journey to a different and better place," Bush said.