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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Pentagon Observance

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Pentagon Auditorium, Washington D.C., Thursday, January 24, 2013

Thank you very much for the opportunity to be able to be here and participate in this wonderful moment of being able to celebrate and pay tribute to the memory and lasting impact of Dr. Martin Luther King. 

Every year, the American people observe a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King.  But we observe MLK Day in a different way than how we observe other holidays – because the most fitting way to honor his legacy is not just to celebrate a holiday, but to act on his words and to do what is important to do to achieve the dream that he spoke about.

Americans of every background have chosen to renew Dr. King’s legacy because his dream is the American dream – it is the dream of giving our children a better life.  That is the dream we all share.  It is the dream that brought my immigrant parents to this country in the 1930s.  And it’s the dream that drove me and so many of you to choose a life in public service.  Because public service is about trying to ensure that our children have a better life:  that they’re safer, that they’re secure, and that they can achieve their dreams.

Dr. King’s experience, and indeed the entire American experience, shows that fulfilling that dream is not easy.  It is a hard, it is a difficult journey – but it is a one that we are all on together.  His lesson to all of us, a great lesson that I’ve carried from Martin Luther King throughout my life is that none of us is truly free unless all of us are truly free.

I had the chance to meet Dr. King when I served in Congress and worked on civil rights laws during the Lyndon Johnson Administration.  I had the chance to meet him at a White House ceremony where Lyndon Johnson signed one of the civil rights acts.  For me it was a remarkable moment, having worked on that legislation and to see the individual who in fact created the inspiration for Congress to act on changing the laws that had for so long segregated individuals in this country.  And I remember the feeling that meeting him – in many ways you recall your own experience with forms of discrimination. 

In no way does my background in any way compare with the millions of people who endured slavery.  But the fact is, when you’re different you have to bear the cost sometimes of inequality and I saw that as a young boy being the son of Italian immigrants who spoke with broken English who felt my classmates laughing at them when they spoke. 

And more importantly, I saw something that I’ll never forget.  My parents had come over and were running a restaurant in downtown Monterey.  My grandfather came over to visit my mother.  This was in 1938 and the war broke out and he was unable to go back to Italy.  So he stuck around and my parents were running this restaurant and he basically raised me. 

I can remember, he was a wonderful guy.  He’d been in the merchant marine for most of his life to sail around the world, he was a big guy.  I had to learn my Italian because if I didn’t speak Italian to him I didn’t eat, so basically, that’s how I learned my Italian, to be able to get some food.

I can remember he used to walk me down to the wharfs of Monterey and he was somebody that I was very close to.  Well, because he was from Italy and as the war broke out, especially after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they had a reason.  You know what happened to the Japanese, but the fact is that the same thing happened in a much different way to Italian aliens.  And because he was an alien and he was considered a security threat, we had to move him inland and away from the coast.  And at seventy two, I guess that they were concerned that he might be involved in an attack on Monterey California. 

But I remember when we had to move him inland finding a place for him to stay and then visiting him periodically.  And I remember asking my parents “Why is my Nonno being forced to live so far away from me?” But my parents, in their pride, never said it was because he was Italian.  But they said, “it was because of the war.”  

As I said, that kind of discrimination does not even begins to reflect the depth of what Martin Luther King had to confront.  Carmel Valley is a hell of a long way, Monterey is a hell of a long way from Stone Mountain, Georgia.

But interestingly enough, when I went into the Army, my first assignment was to Fort Benning, Georgia.  And this is in the early sixties.  Georgia, the birthplace of Dr. King, was, as you know, pretty much a segregated society.  I became aware of that as soon as I was at Fort Benning.

You saw the reality of communities that had been divided by race.  And it was the division that segregated individuals because of their race that ultimately led to the decision in Brown v. Board of Education in which the Court made the fundamental point that separate is inherently unequal.  And I saw the world that Dr. King was fighting to change, and I knew that America could not be true to its founding creed of equality if it did not change.  We know the hardships Dr. King endured and the fact that he ultimately gave his life for his beliefs.  But we also know of the extraordinary progress that was made possible by all of those who were inspired by his words and by his example. 

Three years after I left the Army, I found myself serving as the Director of the Office of Civil Rights, at what was then the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.  The responsibility of that office was to essentially implement Brown v. Board of Education, and try to eliminate segregation in education and give our children a chance to enjoy an equal education.  It was not easy.  In particular, working in Mississippi and Georgia and throughout the South, trying to desegregate schools.  It was tough.  And most of you who come from that part of the country understand what I’m talking about. 

Going down there with individuals from the Office for Civil Rights, we were threatened, we faced all kinds of abuse.  I saw individuals in school districts, black and white, who were the most courageous people I’ve ever seen, who were willing to do what was right, knowing that they’d probably lose their jobs, but they did what they believed was right.  That kind of bravery, that kind of courage, is ultimately what I think ensured the success of the civil rights movement in this country.

It has been a long and difficult and uncertain road.  As Martin Luther King said: “nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.” 

Two miles and one half-century from that point and time, we bore witness this week when President Obama renewed the call for a more just and equal society in the 21stcentury.  Just as we know now that 1963 was not an end, but truly a beginning, we also know that 2013 is not an end, it is another beginning for equal justice and equal rights in this country.  The journey, as the President pointed out, is not complete until all of us are inspired to action to ensure that freedom and equal rights for all people is what we achieve in this country.

That is why I was so moved when President Obama spoke about taking action in our time to secure the freedom and equal rights for the people of all time. 

My time in government is coming to a close, but for the next generation – for many of you – your time is just beginning.  You will now carry the mantle of the civil rights movement in this country, and there is a lot left to be done – including within the Department of Defense.  As Dr. King once said: “the time is always right to do what is right.”

As Secretary of Defense, I know that opening more opportunities to our most qualified men and women in uniform strengthens our ability to fight and to win the nation’s wars. 

Our military is more capable, our force is more powerful when we use all of the diverse strengths of the American people.  That was the case after the racial integration of the Armed Services after World War II, it has been the case after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and it has been the case as more opportunities have opened up for women in uniform.  Later today, I will join General Dempsey in announcing the Department’s way forward to expand opportunities for women to be able to serve their country.

Every person in today’s military has made a solemn commitment to fight and, if necessary, to die for our nation’s defense.  We owe it to them to allow them to pursue every avenue of military service for which they are fully prepared and qualified.  Their career success and their specific opportunities should be based solely on their ability to successfully carry out their assigned missions.  Everyone deserves that chance.

I often say, and I believe this, often times when I’ve attended the funerals of friends, of those who’ve died for this country, that the fundamental question, the fundamental test in life is whether you have made a difference.  We are all striving to make a difference in the world and in our lives, and the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us of our shared obligation to serve each other and to everything we can to make sure that our children have a better life.  

Today we are honored to be joined by Retired Major General Harris, who will be our keynote speaker today.  She’s a highly accomplished officer, and a true pioneer among African American women in the military, she, I believe, embodies Dr. King’s vision of service and equality in this country. 

On this Martin Luther King Day, let us all once again renew our pledge to achieve his vision of a better country for all our children.  May God bless our nation and may God bless Dr. King’s enduring hope for a better future. 

Thank you.

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