President Reagan went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Southeast Washington yesterday and marked the 57th anniversary of the slain civil right's leader birth with praise for King and a story about Reagan's "closest friend" who epitomized the power of nonviolence.
At the end of a 15-minute prepared speech, Reagan told the 300 students an impromptu story about William Franklin Burghardt, a black fellow student at Eureka College in Illinois who played center on the football team while Reagan was a starting guard.
The president said at one game "Burgie" encountered an opponent who was "filled with hatred and prejudice" and "played dirty." Reagan and other team members wanted to help Burghardt fight the player, but the strong, agile center told his teammates, " 'This is my problem. This is my fight,' " and he refused to strike back, Reagan said.
Burghardt, playing with an injured knee, didn't "play dirty," Reagan said. "He played clean. He just played the hit-'em-hard kind of football that we're taught and . . . by the middle of the fourth quarter, his opponent . . . was literally staggering."
As the other player left the field after he was pulled from the game, he shook Burgie's hand, Reagan said.
"He was crying . . . and said, 'I want you to know you're the greatest human being I've ever met.' "
Reagan said the story underscored the power of nonviolence, which King preached and practiced during hundreds of marches, sit-ins and demonstrations during the civil rights era of the 1960s that the Baptist minister helped create.
Yesterday's visit was Reagan's second to the school that he adopted in 1983.
Reagan gave a "special hello" to fifth grader Rudolph Hines, "my pen pal," before beginning his speech in the school's multipurpose room, which was filled with most of the student body, teachers and administrators and decorated with hand-made red and blue "Welcome President Reagan" signs.
He was greeted with loud applause. But there was nary a sound while the president spoke. During the speech, a few wiped away tears.
"It takes a lot of guts not to hit back when someone is hitting you and he King had that kind of guts," said Reagan, who three years ago opposed efforts to make King's birthday a federal holiday. After Congress approved the holiday, Reagan signed the legislation at an emotional White House ceremony.
"Ultimately, the great lesson of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life was this: He was a great man who wrested justice from the heart of a great country . . . and he succeeded because that great country had a heart to be seized," Reagan said.
"When we bow our heads today -- and I hope all of us will -- and say, 'God bless Martin Luther King, Jr.,' we'll also be saying 'God bless America,' " Reagan said.
"I cried when President Reagan asked us to pray for Dr. Martin Luther King and for the whole country. It broke my heart," said Nuckia Carter, 7, a second grader.
Rudolph Hines, Reagan's pen pal, said that the president "said a lot of stuff that made sense."
Accompanying Reagan were Secretary of Education William Bennett and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel Pierce, the only black in Reagan's cabinet. Pierce, as a young civil rights lawyer, helped represent King in a case before the Supreme Court, Reagan noted.
In an event related to the observance of King's birthday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former King aide, lead 250 marchers from the District's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library to the Justice Department. He asked for permission to see to Attorney General Edwin Meese III, but was told he would have to make an appointment.
"For over a quarter-century, the Justice Department, under Republican and Democratic administrations, sought to protect civil rights and voting rights laws that were passed in the mid-1960s ," Jackson said. "The Justice Department, under the Reagan administration, has failed to carry out its responsibility."