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Pentagon Takes African-American History Recognition to the People

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

JACKSON, Miss., Feb. 28, 2003 – Looking to improve its business practices throughout the department, DoD celebrated its headquarters-level African-American History Month events on the road this year.

"In order to recognize and celebrate the contributions of African-Americans more significantly we wanted to explore ways to do this with more substance and the promise of greater benefit for our future leaders," said Charles S. Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. He made those comments to an audience at Touglaoo College, who came to witness the conclusion of the DoD's month-long observance of National African-American Month.

Among those attending were Mississippi Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, and Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson.

Abell, referring to how the Pentagon, specifically, held past national observances, said "traditionally African-American history month (among others) was celebrated with a 30-minute program where we spoke to folks who worked in the Pentagon and then returned to our desks."

"We didn't think that was a good way of doing business," he said.

The idea, he explained was "to take the Pentagon's ethnic observance programs to the nation and our nation's students," he said.

In doing so Pentagon officials headed south to Tougaloo for a two-day exposition and symposium that focused on DoD's theme: "Improving African-American Representation and Access to Information and Opportunities."

The event gave hundreds of students and faculty the chance to talk with representatives of each of the armed services and to hear briefings from several defense agencies about employment opportunities. Meetings were also geared toward helping historically black colleges and universities find partnerships and ways to do business with DoD.

Examples of achievement by African-Americans within DoD were made evident by dozens of military officers, Pentagon executives and staffers present in the audience.

Command Sgt. Maj. Michele S. Jones, the first black woman command sergeant major of the U.S. Army Reserve was one representative. Jones said the nation's largest employer provides everyone with the chance to succeed.

"The Department of Defense is one of the institutions that can really stand behind its numbers in terms of equal opportunities - - more so than in private industries," Jones said. "And I am an example of that, but I succeeded based on merit. I am a command sergeant major, I'm a woman, I'm black and so I'm really pro DoD."

But while much of the Pentagon's observances centered on creating opportunities for African-Americans, the trip to Tougaloo also recognized the history and struggles of black Americans.

Keynote speaker Leonard Spearman, executive director, White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, concentrated on the importance of education to African Americans' success.

Spearman directed attention to the legacies of educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who taught that blacks should have a "thirst for education."

It is an ideal that Spearman, former ambassador to Rwanda and college president, shares.

He told the audience, quoting noted early 20th century black author and leader W.E. B. Dubois, "that the rise and fall of a society is based on the quality of education that a society reaches. In explaining that passage, he said that, "Either the United States will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy the United States."

Spearman then challenged attendees to read and study every day, warning them that the next race for African-Americans in the struggle for equal rights will not be about "the color of their skin, but about how much education they got."

Among those who agreed was Air Force Reserve Col. Terry Davis. A Mississippi native who graduated from Tougaloo College in 1972, Davis is now an adviser to the inspector general of the Air National Guard. He said that education was what got him where he is today.

"Getting to the rank that I am now was not an easy battle, but I give my sense of determination to get where I am to Tougaloo College," Davis said. " If I had not come here, I guarantee you I would not be wearing these eagles."

At an earlier ceremony during the two-day DoD exposition at the college's historic Woodworth chapel, built in 1901, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Equal Opportunity John Molino said that bringing DoD's African-American History Month observance to Tougaloo was a historic event.

"This symposium is indeed a step in a new direction for the Department of Defense," Molino said. "What we are trying to do is bring the Pentagon to America and share with you the rich history that we share together within DoD and the nation."

Tougaloo College's history includes the 1960s when students were arrested after protesting and boycotting against racism in the city of Jackson and elsewhere in Mississippi. Also during that period, several prominent civil rights leaders brought messages of freedom and equality to the student body.

Addressing a small gathering at the Chapel, Abell said he was humbled, standing in a place where slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and NAACP field secretary Medger Evers once stood.

"We came to Mississippi, and specifically to Tougaloo, to pay tribute and to formally recognize the central roles of African- Americans in some of our triumphant and most courageous moments in the nation's history," Abell said.

"I'm humbled to stand at this podium where Martin Luther King Jr. stood, where (activists) Medger Evers, Dick Gregory, Julian Bond stood. When they stood here, they called for equal rights, justice, freedom and opportunity. Not only were they champions of those values , it is important to note that the Department of Defense champions those same values as well," he said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force Col. Terry Davis, adviser to the Inspector General for the Air National Guard, is a Tougaloo College graduate. Davis credits education as the means for success.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageLeonard Spearman, White House executive director for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, was the keynote speaker for DoD's national African-American History Month observance. During his lecture, Spearman spoke of the legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune, an African-American educator, who encouraged African-Americans to seek education as away to achieve equality and freedom. Clarence Johnson (right), principal director for equal opportunity in the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, also attended the ceremonies.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageCharles S. Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, explains to the audience why the Pentagon brought its national African-American History Month observance to Tougaloo College, calling the initiative a way to "bring the Pentagon to America." Beverly Hogan (left) is president of Tougaloo College.  
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