Early Champions Would be Proud of Equal Rights Progress, Gates Says
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 15, 2009 As Pentagon employees celebrated what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 80th birthday today, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told of an early participant in the struggle for equal rights, a young African-American sailor. Video
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates greets four students from the John Tyler Elementary School in Washington, D.C., before participating in the opening ceremonies of the Pentagon's annual observance of King’s legacy, Jan. 15, 2009. The children were winners in the school's Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest. DoD photo by R.D. Ward
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Benjamin Drummond was born a free man in New York in 1843, and at the age of 18 he enlisted in the Navy. While serving aboard the USS Morning Light in the Gulf of Mexico, he was shot three times and was taken prisoner. After a miraculous escape and return to Union lines, he re-enlisted in 1864.
“When his war wounds failed to heal properly, he became the first patient of any color at the Old Naval Hospital on Capitol Hill,” Gates said. “Drummond was discharged in 1868, and years later received a disability pension of $4 a month, just over a dollar per gunshot wound.”
It also was less than half the amount normally allotted for whites, Gates said. Drummond fought for an increase, and he eventually received a lump-sum payment of $210 just before his death. His wife then began her fight for what was then called a widow’s pension.
“The Drummonds’ struggle for what they were due presaged, both literally and figuratively, the promissory note to which Dr. King referred from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial nearly a century later,” Gates said. “There, in his words, he came to cash the check of freedom and equality that for too long had been returned marked ‘insufficient funds.’
“In five days, [President-elect Barack Obama] will place his hand on the same Bible that President Lincoln used in his inauguration in March 1861,” he said. “As all of our citizens watch the historic events of the next week, we should remember Benjamin Drummond and countless others … who faithfully defended this nation long before their duty and devotion had been earned or acknowledged.”
Next week’s inauguration would have been affirming for those who never had the chance, or even imagined it possible, to carry out the orders of a commander in chief of African descent, Gates said.
“I believe [they] will be looking down on the front steps of the Capitol with a measure of pride and satisfaction for themselves and for our country,” he said.
The ceremony included a keynote address by Russell L. Adams, Howard University professor emeritus of African-American studies, and musical selections by Afro Blue, Howard University’s premier vocal jazz ensemble. Four John Tyler Elementary School students, winners of the annual art and essay contest associated with the celebration, were honored as well. The theme was “Dr. King’s vision of unity in the community.”
The nation will observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 19.