Defense Issues: Volume 10, Number 9-- Dr. King's Appeal to an Uneasy Conscience
This is the 11th annual breakfast observance of the national holiday honoring an outstanding American, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
His many contributions toward human justice have been acknowledged internationally. I will only briefly recap some of those acknowledgments:
- In 1964, he received the Nobel Prize.
- An annual Martin Luther King Jr. memorial award is sponsored in England.
- Rome has a Martin Luther King Jr. middle school.
- Sweden has a Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza opposite the ancient University of Uppsala.
- The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Forest thrives in Israel's hills of Galilee.
- In 1981, the official mint of France struck a Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative metal.
- Commemorative stamps have been issued by over 30 nations.
- His book has been translated into a number of languages.
Why are we having a service to recognize this national holiday? Why should this be a national holiday? Why is Martin Luther King Jr. such an international hero? Is it because Dr. King was an exceptional preacher? Is it because he was an outstanding humanitarian? Is it because Dr. King was a great civil rights activist?
I submit that we can go on and on asking such rhetorical questions. There is a long list of renowned pastors, humanitarians and civil rights activists who also dedicated their lives to great causes. Yet none of these individuals are recognized by a national holiday. So why is Dr. King?
I submit that it is a national holiday because Dr. King, through his vision, leadership, courage and dedication, moved this great nation to an enduring commitment to live up to the principles of democracy established by the Declaration of Independence and the great Constitution of the United States of America. In simple terms, He put the "all" in front of the word "Americans." He was personally committed to, and fought for, the protection of the rights of all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin, ethnic background or their religion.
He was the leader of our second revolution -- the revolution for democracy within America for all of its people, and indeed for people all over the world. He enlisted our nation's conscience to right some fundamental wrongs. His moral leadership so moved the conscience of this nation and the world that, hopefully, lasting and unprecedented changes were made in this nation's social structure.
I am proud of this day not because Dr. King was a black man. I am proud that this great country of ours finally recognized a giant who dedicated his life to the betterment of all mankind at home and indeed all over the world. In my mind, Dr. King stands beside and equally tall with Abraham Lincoln.
Let us now for just a moment reflect not on the great man, but on the world as it is today.
We have troops deployed in Bosnia because of the terrible situation that existed there with ethnic hatred and the various groups slaughtering each other. All is not well here on the home front with blacks killing whites and whites killing blacks for no other reason than racism or the color of one's skin .
I am sure that Martin must be churning in his grave with terrible disappointment that even to this day we still have such hatred and racial friction. We still have churches being burned down in Tennessee. We still have malls in the so-called liberal North and elsewhere in this great country of ours where buses from the inner cities cannot enter to take on or discharge passengers. ...
Let us not kid ourselves that all is well. We still have much work to do all over this land to bring our people of all races, religions and ethnic backgrounds together. For all of us that are here this morning and those that are not, we can reinvigorate our efforts beginning right here in the Pentagon, in our communities and indeed wherever our military forces exist.
There are some people here in this building that might tell you that all is well and that we are far ahead of other sectors of our society. We are far ahead of the rest of our society, but all is not well, and we must not kid ourselves that the pot is cool out there. I submit to you that it is boiling, and we must forever work to reduce the heat.
God forbid that we ever again have the racial strife that we lived with in our armed forces during the Vietnam War. To believe that all is well out in the ranks is a disservice to ourselves, to the men and women throughout DoD and to the country. We cannot wait until someone commits a horrible act such as the events that took place at Fort Bragg and Fayetteville [N.C.] to emphasize to our troops that we will not tolerate racism or discrimination in any form in our organizations. We must preach and practice what we preach every day if we are to change the culture of the people we receive from our society at large.
Dr. King was very clear on how he wanted to be remembered. He wanted to be remembered as an individual who gave his life serving others. He wanted to be remembered as a person who tried to love everybody. He wanted people to know that he tried to be right on the Vietnam War question.
He tried to feed the hungry, clothe those who were naked, visit those who were in prison, and love and serve humanity. His words are, "I was a drum major for justice -- I was a drum major for righteousness."
Many of us are old enough to remember the caste system that existed during the '40s and '50s. Under that system, nonwhites in large areas of the country experienced daily indignities because of their color. As a young black Army officer I can assure you that it was extremely difficult to travel to a new duty station, to travel from Fort Monmouth, N.J., as an example, to my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla.
There were very few motels or restaurants that would provide service to blacks if they talked like and dressed like they were Americans. Unfortunately, there were none along most routes that we had to travel.
It was necessary to pack your food in your car with the wife and kids if you intended to have food to eat without suffering the indignities of going to the rear door of a restaurant, even if it was a roadside dump. ... You would eat in the car and you would sleep in the car if you were going to sleep at all. I would get up early in the morning and hit the highway before 0200 [2 a.m.] and drive straight through from Fort Monmouth, N.J., or Fort Devens, Mass., to Jacksonville -- or believe it or not, from Fort Carson, Colo., to Jacksonville, Fla., without stopping except for gas. You never bought gas until you found out if the service station permitted you to use their facilities.
Today, all of that has changed, thanks to the man named Martin.
Let us pretend for a few minutes as I try and bring Dr. King's vision to you in a more vivid fashion: A man calling himself Martin appeared at several locations in greater Washington yesterday.
At each location he spoke about love, nonviolence, peace, justice and freedom. Some who heard him reacted with anger, others lowered their head in shame, some stared expressionless into space. Others simply walked away as he spoke. One minister who refused to give his name said, "Martin's speech and manner presented a sense of urgency." He emphasized by several examples that "In this life, there is such a thing as being too late."
According to those who saw him, Martin was ordinary in appearance and neatly dressed. His clothes were not unusual and his hair was short. He was clean shaven with a neatly trimmed mustache. By all measures, he personified America's middle class.
He spoke without smiling, yet his face and voice remained calm, never showing anger. Numerous eyewitness accounts of what he actually said were given. The following is a compilation gathered from those who were willing to talk about it:
His opening remarks were about love. He said, "The Lord sent me here, and I have to give you these words. You will always serve the Lord if you remember the importance of love. Love leads to an understanding of needs and aspirations far beyond that obtainable by fear, anger and hate. Love is a great moral principle more powerful than violence. Do not forsake the words of Jesus, 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.'"
He then spoke about nonviolence. Martin said, "During my lifetime, I consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek." I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends, but I also affirmed that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of god and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed. And nonviolent, redemptive good will be proclaimed the rule of the land."
Next Martin talked about peace. He said, "The increasing perils of racial conflict and war make it urgent for us to pursue whatever may help to evolve a world with stable and enduring peace." Peace imposed by violence is nothing more than suppressed conflict containing the seeds of its own destruction. Any credible program of stable peace must ultimately rest on a foundation which is nonviolent. "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality."
He continued by saying, "I have gained a measure of personal satisfaction being labeled an extremist for justice. During my lifetime I elected to be courageous rather than cautious and outspoken rather than silent. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I watched many churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities." Today "the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the churches of today do not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early churches, they will lose their authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 21st century."
Martin then reminded his audience of his "I have a dream speech." He said, "I expressed the dream then and I express the dream now that one day all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, 'My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.' And if America is to have longevity as a great nation, this dream must be fulfilled. He told his audience, "I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture of their minds, dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits."
Martin finished by saying, "I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." This is a vision of Dr. King that you can build upon to truly understand the man.
Dr. King appealed to our nation's uneasy conscience. He brought this nation face to face with unjust inconsistencies in our inner character. But neither he nor his followers ever fought force with force. They opposed injustices by a peaceful refusal to cooperate, nothing more, but nothing less. They were cursed, beaten and jailed. They accepted blow after blow, showing no sign of fear or anger, stating their belief in the goodness of America and trusting in the power of God almighty.
Today, many feel that the progress made in human rights and the fight against racism has lost much of its steam. Consider professional sports. The playing fields are fully integrated, but there is little integration at the managerial level.
A study by Gary Oldfield, a political scientist at the University of Chicago found that "segregation of blacks and whites dropped between 1960 and 1972, but little progress has been made over the past two decades. He found that whites now only comprise 3 percent of the students in public schools in the nation's 25 largest cities. He found churches remain highly segregated. He contends that in addition to racial segregation, the 1980s brought a new segregation -- class segregation. This study is not in consonance with the dreams of Martin Luther King Jr.
In a sense, one could almost feel that Martin may have lived and died in vain.
Obviously, this is not true, for we all know that without individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this nation would still be living in the dark ages of intolerance and injustice. For example, let's never forget the injustice of the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that freed blacks were not raised to the rank of citizen; the injustice of the decision that the first civil rights act was unconstitutional; and the injustice of the 50-plus years under the "separate but equal" doctrine.
Martin was a dreamer, but we should remember that America was founded by dreamers.
As we celebrate the birthday of Dr. King, and now Black History Month, we perpetuate the moral courage so necessary to ensure that America remains the beacon light of democracy and religious freedom for the world.
With the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday we perpetuate that appeal for a just society -— a society where all Americans, and indeed people all over the world, can live safely as free and responsible individuals, where all people are able to use their abilities for any constructive purpose that does not interfere with or harm the right of others and where all people can rise to the highest levels that their talents and abilities can take them without being penalized because of race, color, religion, ethnic background, sex or age.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 28 years ago.
Today, with this breakfast, we are trying to keep his dream alive. Whether the dream lives or dies rests with each of us.
My challenge to you is to always do all you can to keep the dream alive.
My challenge to you is to love somebody.
My challenge to you is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and serve humanity.
This is the challenge embodied in the dream and the sacred heritage of our nation and most importantly, the eternal will of God.
God bless you. God bless us all everyday, and particularly as we celebrate the national holiday that honors the life of Dr. King and all that he stood for.
God bless the men and women of our armed services as they serve faithfully to bring peace and a better life to those who are less fortunate than we are all around the world.
God bless America, as it is still the best and greatest nation on earth in every respect, despite the warts that still exist and the frailties of our people in many ways.
God bless each and every one of you, and thanks for letting me share a few minutes this morning in your life.
I love you -- all of you.
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. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/index.html.