A little over two years back, during the second inauguration of President Clinton, the Reverend Gardner Taylor delivered a sweet and moving benediction to the inauguration. His words then are a fitting starting point for our thoughts today:
Reverend Taylor wrote, "We hold before Thee this nation so richly endowed, so grandly blessed, and yet imperiled, apparently often by the very richness of its diversity. Deliver us from pettiness of thought, from harshness of speech, and from violence of action. Make us worthy of our history, of patriots' sacrifice and martyrs' blood...Give us ever greater dedication and commitment to the great defining words of our democracy - liberty, justice, equality, opportunity."
It is that last sentence that defines the importance of our gathering today: Give us ever greater dedication and commitment to the great defining words of our democracy - liberty, justice, equality, opportunity.
America has been and remains the most revolutionary country in history, precisely because it started with those simple principles of democracy.
Millions of men and women over our 220 years have set aside the comforts of private life, put on the uniform of this country and fought and often died for these principles that are at once ancient and yet fresh.
The vision of our founding fathers and mothers was clear, but our nation's path on the journey to our starting point has been rocky. Fifty three years ago black Americans returned from World War II, having fought side by side for freedom and liberty, only to be told it was time again to go to the back of the bus. That didn't fit with the principles for which they fought so long and hard.
Women put on uniform and served in all branches. On the home front women kept the factories running and the offices humming. Yet in the aftermath of the war they were told it was time to return to the kitchen and the parlors of America's homes. That didn't fit the principles of American democracy.
You can't fight for freedom and liberty overseas, and ignore the principles of justice and opportunity at home! American democracy won't let you do that.
So 1948 proved to be a momentous year. President Truman signed the executive order that directed the racial desegregation of our Armed Forces. And in 1948 the United States Congress, led by Senator Margaret Chase Smith, passed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act.
Integration is the only word that makes sense in American democracy, and it stands side by side with our other hallowed principles-liberty, freedom, justice, opportunity, integration.
We gather here to celebrate another day in the long history of justice in America. Every generation has its responsibility to fight anew for the founding principles of this country. No generation can escape the challenges of our national idealism.
Were this event just about the past - just a recollection of events 50 years old, we would fall short of our duties to this day. We remember the past to enliven our present and guide us into the future.
We celebrate the fact that America's Armed Forces today offer more opportunity for women and people of color than at any time in America's history. But this is not a settled fact. The cause of justice is a struggle we all face -or should face-every day.
The expanding role of women in our Armed Forces-as with the racial integration of our forces - has been accompanied by many problems. As Secretary of Defense Cohen said last week, we still have an environment in the Department where women face intimidation and harassment. There is no place in American democracy for a climate of intimidation or discrimination-be it in our Armed Forces or any place else. We are committed to eliminating that climate of intimidation, and letting the fresh breeze of justice and opportunity flow through our ranks.
At the same time, we cannot let the legitimate fears of safety and security for our female soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, become an excuse for pulling back from the principles of opportunity and justice. Secretary Cohen listened to the voices of our senior military leadership and shares their view that integrated training will provide for a stronger and more capable military force -and a more just society.
Observing anniversaries would become an empty gesture if they dwell only on the past. Anniversaries become important mileposts on our journey as a country only if they guide us into the future. We celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 because of the clear direction it gives us all today.
I thank all of you who gather today to mark this anniversary. But echoing the prayer of Reverend Taylor, I hope this event gives us greater dedication and commitment to the great defining words of our democracy-liberty, justice, equality, opportunity.