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Each of Us Carries a Piece of the Dream
Prepared remarks of Edwin Dorn, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, The Martin Luther King Jr. birthday observance, U.S. Southern Command, Panama, Wednesday, January 11, 1995

Thank you... . I am glad that I could join you on this important occasion, but you should know at the outset that I am speaking with a certain amount of trepidation.

You see, I've never quite known how to commemorate this occasion. I've given several speeches about Martin Luther King's legacy over the years, but I've never been satisfied with them. So what I'd like to do today is think out loud about this question: How best can we honor a man whose legacy is both specific and universal, a man whose identity is tied to race but whose achievement was to move his country beyond its preoccupation with race? As we think together about this question, we might also reflect on something else, which is why no one has emerged to replace King -- why this nation seems to be experiencing a vacuum of moral leadership in spite of a surfeit of so-called moral leaders.

Let's start with that December day in 1955 when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white man who had boarded a bus she was riding in Montgomery, Ala. Martin Luther King Jr. was a very young pastor, just 26 years old, when he organized the bus boycott to protest that incident.

The boycott was based on a simple proposition: Black people who pay to ride a bus should not have to yield their seats to white people. Two things are interesting about that proposition. One is that it seems irresistible, so morally obvious that no one with half a brain or half a conscience could possibly see things differently. The other is that that simple, obvious proposition had been resisted for many decades. For years tired black women had been rising from their seats so that white women (and men and children) could sit down. That was the way things were.

Now, what did Dr. King do? He was able to tap a deep well of righteous anger -- a well filled with the tiredness and the tears of thousands of black women who for decades had known that something was wrong, but did not know how to rectify it.

The implications of that 381-day boycott went far beyond correcting the indignity that Rosa Parks and other black bus riders in Montgomery suffered daily. Dr. King found, in a single obvious wrong, a symbol for a whole world full of wrongs. He was able to extend his simple proposition to a much larger set of propositions about civil rights. It wasn't just a seat on the bus. It was accommodation for the weary traveler, a ticket to the movie theater, a vote, a right to compete for any job for which one was qualified. Thus Martin Luther King Jr. helped us see a world of injustice in one grain of insult.

Dr. King displayed moral leadership, but he also displayed a consummate public affairs skill. Moral ideas are, in a sense, products. They need selling, which means finding ways to simplify their essence and package them attractively. But of course Dr. King wasn't selling consumer products or even partisan political ideas. His sales job was a test of character, not just of advertising skills.

We haven't had a leader of Dr. King's moral power for a long time now. This is not surprising. Great leaders are by definition rare. Still, we should spend a few minutes thinking about what it was that made Dr. King so special and why, by contrast, so many of today's moral leaders are so disappointing.

Three things distinguished Martin Luther King Jr. One was his courage -- his willingness to act on his convictions in spite of the costs and the dangers. Today there's no shortage of people who lecture us on moral issues. Some of them have built media empires, others have sold millions of books, still others have won a lot of votes for political office. But you know something that virtually none of them has done? Virtually none of them has ever risked anything. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders went to jail, and some of them gave their lives in order to right a wrong.

Today we have moralists for fun and profit. It's right and wrong as profit and loss, as audience share, as book advances and talk show appearances. Talk a good moral game and you get a talk show. Confess your own mortal sins before an electronic congregation and your TV ratings might go up. Get somebody else to confess their sins before a TV audience and you might become as popular as Oprah. But you're not exercising moral leadership.

Second, Dr. King challenged this nation to "live out the true meaning of its creed." By creed he meant our shared and deeply held belief that all people are created equal and they have certain inalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If that's what we believe, Dr. King argued, then we ought to act like it. Our laws and our personal behavior should be testaments to that creed. Originally he applied this idea to racial issues. By the 1960s he began to apply it to economic inequities in this country and to human rights abuses abroad.

The third distinctive thing about Dr. King -- and about all great moral leaders -- was his inclusiveness. He set out to bring us together, not to tear us apart, and to do it by gentle suasion, not by force. There is no shortage of people who will tell us that "we" are better than "they," that my political party is better than her political party, that my religion is the only path to salvation. But there is a painful shortage of people who can help us look beneath our obvious differences to see our common humanity.

It seems at times that we as a human race have not matured much since the time of the Crusades and the Jihads that caused so much blood to flow across Europe and Africa hundreds of years ago. Indeed, what we're witnessing in the old Soviet bloc today is a resumption of centuries-old quarrels. In every case someone claims that the war is righteous, that the killing and the pillaging are justified.

The civil war in what used to be Yugoslavia tells us just how thin is the veneer of tolerance and civility that separates us from barbarism. There, people who have lived together in harmony for years -- people who are virtually indistinguishable in appearance and language -- have found enough difference among themselves to justify wholesale slaughter and pillage and rape. What's happening in Bosnia is scary because most of the world's nations are multiracial or multiethnic, and most of those nations have unresolved grievances that could easily lead to violent conflict. Indeed, most of the roughly three dozen conflicts that are occurring around the world today are of that kind -- one group trying to impose its will on another or escape from the domination of another or, in the case of what the Serbs are trying to do in Bosnia, drive the offending "others" away.

We in this country know well our own history of racial oppression. How to deal with it -- how to deal with the presence of several races in one country -- has been a subject of argument since before this nation was founded. Logically there are only a few basic options, and they've been debated again and again over the past 300 years.

Basically we can try to live together in harmony, or we can segregate ourselves.

Dr. King chose the former path. He was an integrationist. He argued that integration is simply a "recognition of the solidarity of the human family." But he also argued in his last book that if blacks and browns and whites and reds and yellow people couldn't find ways to live together, the nation would disintegrate. But even as he was at work on that last book, Chaos or Community, others were telling us that integration was a fraud, at minimum a form of cultural genocide.

Some 90 years ago W.E.B. DuBois wrote that each black American is torn between two selves, one self feeling that he belongs to America and the other feeling that he belongs to Africa. DuBois described this ambivalence as "twoness." Every group experiences that kind of tension to one degree or another, but the special history of black people in this country may cause especially strong inner tensions.

There is a way to deal with "twoness," and that's by distinguishing between the past and the future. It is appropriate, even necessary, for every group in this society to pause every once in a while and take note of whence it came. We need St. Patrick's Day and Columbus Day and Hispanic Heritage Week and Black History Month. But it also is appropriate, and necessary, for us to spend most of our time thinking about where we're going. Our society is, and needs to be, a richly colored tapestry.

That is what Dr. King had in mind when he wrote Chaos or Community -- that either this nation's diverse elements will be woven together in a rich tapestry or the society will come unraveled.

All right, so Dr. King was a man of rare moral courage and an integrationist who believed in the nation's creed and challenged us to live up to it. What does all that mean for us? How, recognizing his qualities and his teachings, should we honor this day?

I think we pay homage to Dr. King in three ways. First, what we should do on his birthday is what he usually did on his birthday -- work. I don't mean that we should forget the holiday and show up for duty. I mean that we should dedicate at least a part of that day to some meaningful effort. Spend time with our families (not watching TV), clean out the garage. But don't sleep late; idleness is not the way to honor Dr. King.

Second, each of us can honor Dr. King by helping to build the community that he dreamed we could become -- a community ... where the "sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood," where "children ... will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," where "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

That was Dr. King's dream. But it also was his challenge to us, because forming that larger, diverse, integrated community is hard. Segregation is easy, because it satisfies our need for the familiar. Most people feel comfortable with people who are very much like themselves, people who share similar backgrounds and interests. Reaching out is hard.

I remember growing up in Houston, Texas, in the 1950s and 1960s. About once a year my church, an African Methodist Episcopal church, would exchange visits with a white Methodist church. One Sunday the white church's minister and a few parishioners would attend service at my church. The next Sunday my minister would go preach at the white church. Other community groups, such as the "Y," also fostered interracial contact at a time when segregation was enforced by both law and custom.

When I was younger, I was cynical about those encounters. I thought they were artificial and forced and even insulting. I mean, c'mon. Once a year my minister got to preach to a white congregation, and after the service a lot of white people would shake his hand and tell him how intelligent and articulate he was, and, gee golly, wasn't this a great thing for race relations?

I recall participating in similar encounters during my college years (the mid-1960s). Some do-good campus organization would sponsor an interracial meeting, and everybody would sit around saying how wonderful it was that they were all sitting around, talking about race. At some point some bright-eyed white boy or girl was bound to ask, "Now, what's it really like to be a Negro?" (That was the term used at the time -- a period of transition between "colored" and "black." In the past few years a lot of people have developed a preference for "African-American," a term that's been in and out of vogue for three centuries.)

In recent years my attitude has mellowed a bit. Oh, I still think those encounters were pretty forced and stilted and at times even condescending. But I've concluded that they were necessary then, and I am starting to believe that they may be necessary today.

Even after all the civil rights progress we've made in the past 40 years, interracial relations are still not easy. Oh, we get along all right together on the job, most of the time. But after work many of us return to a world that is essentially segregated. Some 30 years ago comedian Dick Gregory observed that Sunday morning was the most segregated time in America. That's still so.

I am not suggesting that each of us must set out to find a whole new circle of friends or take out membership in a new church just because its congregation is mostly of some other race. What I'm suggesting is this: One way to honor Dr. King's memory is to spend at least part of the Martin Luther King holiday with people who are different from ourselves. I will go further. If on Martin Luther King Day you hang out with the same people you always hang out with, then you've missed the point. You've done nothing to honor the man's legacy.

There's a third way you can honor King, and that's by showing pride in your country. What I'm about to say may sound trite, especially to the younger members of this audience, but I'm obliged to say it anyway: This country has come a long way in the past 30 or 40 years. In the space of a few years we rewrote centuries of law that had kept the races separate and unequal. Those changes did not come without cost; we went through much social turmoil. Many courageous Americans, including Dr. King, gave their lives in the struggle. And even after all that, we still have a huge number of problems -- racial problems, problems with drugs and crime and promiscuity, problems with children raising children.

But compare what's happened here during the past 30 or 40 years with what's happened in so many other multiethnic societies -- Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Rwanda, the states of the former Soviet empire. On the whole we have done well. However much farther we have to go, we have not moved backward. We have not yet built the community that Dr. King envisioned, but we have avoided chaos, and the racial situation in this country is much improved.

We should take pride in the fact that this country acknowledged a huge problem and set out to deal with it and dealt with it in a positive way.

Those of us who are connected with the military should feel a special pride, because the military has been far ahead of most other major American institutions on the matter of race. The military also is doing pretty well on the matter of gender. Most of you are familiar with Secretary [of Defense William J.] Perry's initiatives on equal opportunity.

Early last March, soon after becoming secretary, Dr. Perry signed a memo that made his views very clear: He believed that equal opportunity was a military necessity -- not a morally "nice-to-do" thing, but a necessity. He laid out a five-point plan for improving our EO [equal opportunity] programs and later instructed AF [Air Force] Secretary Sheila Widnall and me to take a close look at the way the department handles racial discrimination and sexual harassment complaints.

We think we'll move things forward with the mandate we're being given by Secretary Perry. For example, the Navy Department has set new goals: By the turn of the century, the Navy expects that 12 percent of its new ensigns and Marine lieutenants will be black and another 12 percent will be Hispanic.

But the military's commitment to EO is of long standing. The Army had black officers commanding white soldiers during the Korean conflict. That was some 15 years before that bastion of political enlightenment, Harvard University, had a black professor teaching its undergraduates.

Why did the military, generally regarded as an exceedingly conservative institution, get ahead of the rest of the country on one of our most difficult social issues? The answer is military necessity.

In 1948 President [Harry] Truman signed an executive order calling for "equality of treatment and opportunity" for all persons in the military. He did that because of strategic and demographic realities.

The U.S. had determined by the late 1940s that it needed to retain a sizable military force. But the cohort of young men reaching draft age in the late '40s and early '50s had been born during the Depression, when people were having small families. So there was a shortage of white men. And civil rights leaders had warned Truman that black men would boycott draft registration unless the military began to treat them fairly.

In short, the only way to get enough young soldiers was by expanding opportunities for blacks, eliminating the quota on black enlistments and desegregating units. By the same token, the services opened opportunities for women in the mid-1970s largely to compensate for a shortage of male volunteers.

There are lessons in this bit of history. First, it is essential for the armed forces to recruit from as broad and diverse a pool as possible of qualified men and women. Second, the services must have the flexibility to train and assign people to the jobs for which they are best qualified.

A couple of years ago a young Air Force officer who finished first in her class at undergraduate pilot training was told that because of her sex she would be assigned to fly tankers or transports. Now, the rule always had been that those who finished highest got the pick of assignments, and the "best" pilots usually chose fighters. But, here was the Air Force doing something that clearly did not make sense from a standpoint of putting the best people in the most demanding jobs. So in the spring of 1993 we changed the rules so that women could fly combat aircraft. And that young officer was one of the first women to be assigned to a fighter squadron.

The military is not only an example for other American institutions, it's an example for much of the rest of the world. Remember a point I made earlier: Most societies are multiracial or multiethnic, and many of them are rent by centuries-old conflicts that cut along racial or ethnic lines.

When our American military deploys to such a society -- say, Macedonia or Rwanda -- its very composition carries an important message about the possibilities of multiracial cooperation. That, to me, is a very big deal. And it should be a source of great pride to you.

We are a nation in the making. And each of us has a role in the making of it. As individuals, we cannot control the broad events that affect our course. But each of us can still make a difference. Each of us carries within us a fragment of Martin Luther King's dream. Each of us carries our own light, our own small torch for justice and racial harmony. We need to let our lights shine.

When we detect prejudice and intolerance, whether in ourselves or in our friends, we need to shine a light on it -- expose it for what it is. When we detect that people who should come together are being pulled apart, we must make our own small gestures to keep things from unraveling.

The Martin Luther King holiday, of all days, is the time to affirm that we Americans share a common vision. You don't have to be a politician or a preacher to do that. You don't need a microphone or a newspaper column. All you need is your good will, your voice and a willingness to say out loud to someone else that you too have a dream.

 

Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission.