He focused instead on people contributing today — those who are seizing opportunities gained at great price, the president said.
"Their stories," Bush said, "speak a lot louder and a lot clearer than I could."
Like the breakthrough by Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy, who this month became the first black coaches to take their teams to the Super Bowl. Or the work of astronauts Robert Curbeam and Joan Higgenbotham, whose helped rewire the International Space Station.
And then there's Tyrone Flowers, a once aspiring basketball star who was shot and paralyzed. Instead of seeking sympathy or revenge, Flowers became a lawyer and teamed with his wife to form a leadership program for at-risk children.
"That's what we're honoring today: ordinary citizens who do unbelievably fine things," Bush said in an East Room ceremony honoring Black History Month.
"Our call and our need is to continue to remember the promise belongs to everybody," Bush said. "And our call for this country is never to rest until equality is real, opportunity is universal and every citizen can realize his or her dreams."
The nation has been commemorating black history since 1926. Originally established as Negro History Week, the event changed over the years, formally becoming Black History Month in 1976.
Bush seemed to delight in recognizing some of the star personalities around him.
Reprising a memorable scene from his State of the Union speech at the Capitol last month, he honored Wesley Autrey of New York, a construction worker who jumped onto the tracks in a subway station to save a man who had fallen from a seizure. Autrey pointed with pride to the president and blew kisses to the audience. "We're proud you're here again," Bush said. "We thank you for your courage."
Bush exchanged big smiles with Bonnie St. John, who lost a leg but went on to win medals in downhill skiing in the Paralympics.
"She is the kind of person that you really want to be around," Bush said, "and the kind of person that shows that individual courage matters in life."