Cleckley: Need Special Time to Celebrate Who We Are
By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., Feb. 5, 2003 February is African- American History Month, but the tributes and testimonies actually begin about two weeks earlier, around Jan. 15, the birthday of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is impossible for African Americans like Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Julia Cleckley to consider the month without acknowledging King's birthday, because of his role in helping attain the civil rights that so many people celebrate every February.
The mid-January King national holiday weekend honors the American civil rights icon. It's also a time when many Americans begin to pay annual tributes to the members of the nation's diverse culture. For instance, special months honoring women (March) and Asian Americans (May) soon follow.
Cleckley enlisted in the Women's Army Corps before the onus of gender segregation moved the American conscience to disband it. She earned her commission in the New York Army Guard's 42nd Infantry Division in 1976, the year America celebrated its 200th anniversary and the ideal expressed in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal."
Like many African-American women, Cleckley said, she strives to help others attain the dream of equality that King advocated for all.
She was promoted to one-star general in September 2002 after becoming the first black woman who'd achieved many other milestones in the Army Guard. Not the least of her achievements was her promotion to colonel in the ranks of guardsmen who hold a special authority to serve on full- time active duty.
She's now the Army Guard director's special assistant for human resource readiness, and she chairs the Army Guard's Equal Employment Opportunity Committee. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People presented Cleckley with its Roy Wilkins Renowned Service Award in 1998.
Cleckley recently addressed the National Guard's annual prayer breakfast honoring King in Washington, D.C. She said she's set to travel to at least five states during African American History Month and would speak about how far African Americans have come and how far they have yet to go. She shared some of her observations during a post- breakfast interview:
Q. Why is it important to honor ethnic groups with events such as African American History Month when we're all said to be Americans?
Cleckley. "The majority race is not Hispanic or African American. That is coupled with the fact that most of the leaders in American society and in the administration and in all facets of the corporate world belong to the majority race. But we're all intertwined.
"It's important that the majority race hears and sees what minorities have done to make this country great. A lot of people in the majority race don't know these things. They need to know about the struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. and his part in getting the Civil Rights Act passed.
"It is important for Hispanics and Asian Americans and African Americans to have a day or a month to celebrate who we are, and to show that this is what our cultures have to offer, and to show what is important to us. It is important to let everyone else see that."
Q. How far have we progressed toward fulfilling the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
Cleckley. "We've come a long way, but we still have a way to go. Since I grew up in his era, I have, of course, seen progress. Segregation is just not overt now. But we still have some of it in covert ways. I'd say we've progressed to well over 70 percent."
Q. Will it take a lot more time to achieve the final 20 percent to 30 percent than it did the first 70 percent to 80 percent?
Cleckley. "I don't think it's going to take that long. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and look how far we've come. I think we'll get there much quicker than it took us to get to where we are today."
Q. Do you have an African American hero other than Martin Luther King Jr.?
Cleckley. "One of my favorite heroes is the late Barbara Jordan. She was a great orator. She was the first African American woman who really moved me in terms of her educational philosophy and her professional accomplishments." (Jordan, who died in 1996, was a congresswoman, orator, educator and the first African American woman to win a seat in the Texas state senate.)
Q. Is the military still setting the pace for equality?
Cleckley. "Yes. I have felt that way ever since I was an enlisted person. I think the military is far more advanced in a lot of things than some of the civilian sectors. They include equal opportunity, diversity, and the fact that females can progress as long as we do the job and as long as we punch all of the tickets that we're supposed to punch. That's what I've done throughout my career."
(Master Sgt. Bob Haskell is senior correspondent in the National Guard Bureau Public Affairs Office, Arlington, Va.)