Retired Officer Describes Personal Impact of King’s Ideals
By Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 24, 2013 A retired officer who blazed trails in her Air Force career told the audience at the Pentagon’s 28th annual observance of the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. today that she drew inspiration from the slain civil rights leader.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta shakes hands with retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Marcelite J. Harris before they deliver remarks during the Defense Department's 28th annual Martin Luther King Jr. observance at the Pentagon, Jan. 24, 2013. DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Retired Maj. Gen. Marcelite J. Harris, who left the service in 1997 as the highest-ranking woman officer in the Air Force and the highest-ranking African-American woman in the Defense Department, said she has made the commitment of excellence to herself and to King’s dream.
Harris said she was unaware that sweeping change was afoot when she first became aware of King when she was 17 and he led student movements at Morehouse and Spelman universities in Atlanta.
“All you are aware of is that you are a part of something significant and important,” Harris said. “You don’t realize that your small steps would shape the society of the nation. It doesn’t dawn on you that you’re a part of something that will change the world you live in.”
Harris became one of many foot soldiers of this movement. “We did our fighting on picket lines and on foot, on boycotting and sitting in,” she said. “It was well-known that if you did -- you sat in -- you were going to be arrested.”
But King and his student leaders, Harris said, didn’t want people to get arrested unless they were at least 18 years old.
“I could not wait to be 18,” she said. “In my naïveté, I’d rather go to jail than picket. I wanted to make a statement.”
Harris said her father encouraged her to participate without getting arrested, and King’s philosophies ultimately carried her throughout her career.
Her travels as part of a theater group at Spelman University sparked an interest in making a difference through new experiences on the road, which she said led her to joining the Air Force.
Harris became the first woman aircraft maintenance officer, one of the first two women air officers commanding at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the Air Force’s first woman vice commander for maintenance. Seeing the value of purpose, she said, leads to enjoying not only the work, but also the people involved.
“The Department of Defense is a miniature model of America,” Harris said. “[The] United States is a land of multiple races, multiple ethnic groups, multiple cultures, individuals with alternative lifestyles and people who have different and varied opinions.”
She noted the nation’s forefathers’ prophetic vision, evident in their use of the Latin phrase, “E Pluribus Unum,” or “Out of Many, One.”
“This is us -- this is the military,” Harris said. “We are part of that dream that Martin Luther King envisioned. We are part of that nation that the framers of the Constitution envisioned.”
That realization, Harris said, helped her to succeed in her career. “I figured out what the Air Force was,” she said. “It’s people -- dedicated people. They worked together regardless of race or color.”
Following her retirement, Harris served NASA as the Florida site director and logistics process owner for the company managing the space shuttle program, United Space Alliance.
Harris created Eroster Government Solutions, a business in which she is currently the chief executive officer. She also is a member of both Delta Sigma Theta and the MECCA Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.