Defense Department to Honor Martin Luther King Jr. Jan. 24
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 17, 2013 The Defense Department will honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. this year on Jan. 24 with an observance hosted by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Marcelite J. Harris, who retired in 1997 as the highest-ranking woman officer in the Air Force and the highest-ranking African-American woman in the Defense Department, will be the keynote speaker at a Jan. 24 Pentagon event marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the accompanying national day of service. U.S. Air Force photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The event will begin at 8 a.m. in the Pentagon Auditorium, and it will be broadcast live on the Pentagon Channel’s cable network and website.
The keynote speaker for the department’s 28th annual observance of the national day of service will be retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Marcelite J. Harris, who left the service in 1997 as the highest-ranking woman officer in the Air Force and the highest-ranking African-American woman in the Defense Department.
The permanent theme for the Jan. 21 federal holiday honoring King is “Remember, Celebrate, Act: A day on, not a day off.”
Legislation signed in 1983 created the Martin Luther King Jr. Day federal holiday. In 1994, Congress designated the holiday as a national day of service. The remembrance takes place each year on the third Monday in January, and is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service.
The day is being observed as part of “United We Serve,” an initiative that President Barack Obama announced in June 2009 as a call to action for all Americans to volunteer and be part of building a new foundation for the nation, one community at a time.
From 1957 until his death in 1968, King traveled more than 6 million miles and spoke more than 2,500 times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest and action, according to the Nobel Prize organization website.
In 1963, he was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year. He had become the symbolic leader of American blacks in the push for equality and a world figure.
At age 35, King was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tenn., where he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking sanitation workers there.
King was born Jan. 15, 1929. On this birthday, he would have been 84.
In an interview with American Forces Press Service from her home in Atlanta, Harris said that her career followed King’s philosophy of nonviolent efforts and commitment to a cause.
“My achievements came because of my commitment,” she said. “You have to be committed to your purpose, and I think those [career] milestones came because of my commitment to doing a job well. I believe in excellence.”
In the Air Force, Harris was the first woman aircraft maintenance officer, one of the first two women air officers commanding at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the Air Force’s first woman vice commander for maintenance.
Her service medals and decorations include the Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation, and the Vietnam Service Medal.
After retirement, Harris served NASA as the Florida site director and logistics process owner for the company managing the shuttle program, United Space Alliance.
Today she is CEO of a business she created called Eroster Government Solutions and is a member of two service-oriented organizations: Delta Sigma Theta and the MECCA Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
“If you look back through my [Air Force] records, you’ll see that every inspection that I went through, the results were excellent,” Harris said. “I would find out what it takes to get rated as excellent, and that’s the way I would gear my whole work force.”
The retired major general said she feels a kinship to King. Her January birthday is the day after his, and she graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta, just across the street from King’s alma mater, Morehouse College.
“I try to live the way King wanted you to live, and that’s by doing what you know to be right and what you believe to be right, and taking the obstacles and surmounting them,” Harris explained.
Her goal for the keynote speech on Jan. 24 is to inspire service members to get involved in solving community problems, she said.
“What I want them to walk away with is [a determination to] find some area in the community, especially now since the forces are drawing down and you’re coming back home, help your community,” Harris said.
“You folks are disciplined, you folks know how to get a job done, you know how to set a goal, and you know how to have fun doing it,” she added. “So take that out into our community, and let’s help the government get America back on track being the greatest country in the world.”