Bill Clinton accepts the King Center’s Salute to Greatness Award

The former president emphasized the importance of MLK’s “beloved community,” bantered with Andrew Young, and praised the Pope.

During Saturday’s annual King Center Salute to Greatness Awards dinner, former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador Andrew Young introduced former President Bill Clinton with the utmost praise, calling him “probably the most-loved human being on Earth.”

Clinton, however, had a different candidate in mind for that particular honor.

“Andy Young, I love you with all my heart, but it’s not true that I’m the most popular person on the planet,” Clinton said, “The Pope is.”

Clinton jokingly remarked that he was having a pretty good run at being the world’s most popular person until the pontiff “played a card I can’t trump” by announcing to the world’s children that pets have souls and could go to heaven. When Clinton’s 12-year-old black lab passed away shortly after, “the Pope got my vote too,” he said. “He’s one cool dude.” (Note: The Washington Post has reported the remarks about pets in heaven were misattributed to Pope Francis and were based off a comment by Pope Paul VI.)

Clinton received the Center’s award for his humanitarian work with the Clinton Foundation, which has helped people living with HIV and AIDS and has worked to fight climate change, among other initiatives. During his 16-minute acceptance speech, he stressed the importance of creating the “beloved community” articulated by Martin Luther King Jr.—one that is economically and politically inclusive.

“Everywhere in the world, people with dreams and hopes, they deserve to be part of a beloved community,” he said, “I was reminded all over again when I was sitting through Selma. It wasn’t like I didn’t live through it, and I swear, just like it was the first time, when they went across the bridge the second time, I stood up and started cheering all by myself. It was just evidence of the fact that we all want to live in a beloved community. We all want to think we can do great things because we have a launching pad.”

He’d previously referred to Selma when he first took the stage, joking that he had asked Young, “Were you ever that thin?”

Clinton praised the King Center’s Nonviolence 365 program, saying that it “gives [young people] a home where is okay not to hate.” He stressed that in contrast, shame-based cultures were “a curse on the young,” and that children should be instead raised in pride.

“That’s why the King Center is important,” he said, “It is very important to remember that at the end of his life, Dr. King was in Memphis . . . helping the sanitation workers on his way to kick off the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington D.C. because the beloved community is about inclusive economics and giving everybody a chance to work and be rewarded for it.”

Clinton noted that a beloved community isn’t a place where everyone constantly agrees with each other, but a society that places importance in common humanity rather than differences. He used the example of the Human Genome Project to illustrate the idea, saying that while it has been discovered that non-age-related differences are only rooted in one half of one percent of the genome, people spend 99 and a half percent of their time thinking about those differences. (He also joked that he hoped the audience liked the genome project, as he spent 3 billion dollars of taxpayer’s money on the research.)

“The most important conflicts in the world today are identity conflicts,” Clinton said, “And the first decision everybody has to make in a world where we’re all terminal is whether or not our differences or our common humanity is most important.”

Clinton closed his speech by returning to the civil rights movement.

“Fifty years ago, a lot of people took a lot of chances. Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Showing up for church one Sunday in Birmingham. To get up and walk through the day and breathe was a chance. Now, we’re all term-limited, but they increased their risk of a short term so that you could be here in Atlanta sitting at these fancy tables tonight. The least we can do is give our young people a down payment on the real beloved community.”