24th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Observance (Arlington, VA)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Pentagon Conference Center (Arlington, VA), Thursday, January 15, 2009
Thank you, Mike.
Good morning and welcome to this celebration of Doctor Martin Luther King Junior’s life and legacy.
This past year, I was honored to participate in the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of racial integration in the military and federal workforce.
As I said last year: I am honored to lead an institution that, however imperfectly, helped upend prejudice before the civil-rights movement gained momentum. I would add that I am committed to building an organization that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of all men and women.
In five days, President Obama will place his hand on the same bible that President Lincoln used for his inauguration in March 1861 – a month before the start of the war that would determine whether America would remain half-slave, and half-free. A couple of years later, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of black men rushed to enlist. Frederick Douglass, who recruited heavily in the north, said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”
About 200,000 African Americans served in the Union army and navy during the Civil War. From time to time, a movie like “Glory” receives attention, but too often their stories go untold – even when reminders of their service are close to home.
Consider Benjamin Drummond. He was born a freeman in New York and, at the age of 18, enlisted as a sailor in the Union navy. In 1863, Drummond was serving aboard the USS Morning Light in the Gulf of Mexico when his vessel came under attack by two Confederate “cotton clads,” so-called because the hulls had cotton bale as their armor.
The Confederates battered the Morning Light with withering fire; one Rebel boasted that Union soldiers “fell from the masts like squirrels from a tree.” Drummond was among them. After falling to the deck, he was shot in the shoulder and both legs, then taken prisoner with the rest of the crew. After seven months in captivity, Drummond miraculously escaped and made his way back to Union lines.
He reenlisted in December 1864. When his war wounds failed to heal properly, he became the first patient of any color at the Old Naval Hospital on Capitol Hill, located a stone’s throw from Marine Corps Barracks – the setting for Friday evening parades that have become an elegant and moving fixture in D.C.
Drummond was discharged in 1868 and, years later, received a disability pension of $4 a month – just over a dollar per gunshot wound. Drummond’s pension was also less than half the amount normally allotted to whites. As you can see, there were issues with the disability ratings even then. He fought for an increase and eventually received a lump sum of $210 right before his death. He was buried in a pauper’s grave, at which time his wife began a long and costly process to petition for what was then called a “widow’s pension.”
The Drummonds’ struggles for what they were due presaged – literally and figuratively – the “promissory note” to which Doctor King referred from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial nearly a century later. There, in his words, he came to “cash the check” of freedom and equality that for too long had been returned marked “insufficient funds.”
As all of our citizens watch the historic events of next week, we should remember Benjamin Drummond and countless others – the men of 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen, and millions more – who faithfully defended this nation long before their duty and devotion had been earned or acknowledged. Who never had a chance, or even imagined it would be possible, to carry out the orders of a commander-in-chief of African descent. But who, next Tuesday, I believe, will be looking down on the front steps of the Capitol with a measure of pride and satisfaction – for themselves, and for our country.
Thank you and God bless.