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Reawakening the Dream
Prepared remarks by Edwin Dorn, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, 12th annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast at the Pentagon, Thursday, January 30, 1997

Thank you ... I've attended a lot of events in the Pentagon in the past 3 1/2 years, even hosted a few, but this is the first time I will have been the guest speaker. So this is a special occasion for me.

We're here for reasons both joyous and solemn -- to remember the dreams and accomplishments of a great man who was taken from us too soon. However, our young essayist, Rochelle Davis, said something very important: MLK [Martin Luther King Jr.] Day isn't merely about remembering; this holiday also should be about the future. ...

Virtually every commemoration of MLK Day features a recitation of "I Have A Dream," one of the most eloquent and morally compelling speeches in the history of American politics. Let us dwell on the words a bit. Dr. King said he dreamed of 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 be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character; and
  • Where "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

At the time, those things were very much a dream. I graduated from a segregated high school in the spring of 1963 and was assigned to an all-black dormitory when I enrolled at the University of Texas that fall. Throughout my four years at UT, the university's board of regents debated whether African Americans should be allowed to play on the football team.

Things have changed a lot since then. In 1963, we'd never had an African American in the cabinet or in the military's most senior ranks or in the executive suites of major corporations. Indeed, African Americans were just starting to become prominent in sports. So things have changed.

There hasn't been as much change as we would like, though. Many of our institutions are still segregated -- by long-standing practice, if not by law. Indeed, we heard recently of a city where segregation is so severe that, it is claimed, African Americans actually speak a different language than the white population. We can, of course, dismiss the claim of a separate language as hyperbole. What we should take seriously, however, is the frustration and desperation that would lead people to say such a thing. No matter what one calls it, the reality is that there are parts of the country where race relations have not improved much in recent decades. Sadly, on both sides of the racial divide are those who want to preserve segregation. I reject that attitude. I think we all should reject it. Instead, we should try to recall what King's dream was and rededicate ourselves to it.

Here's the key point: Dr. King said, "I have a dream." " I have a dream." He didn't say "I have a legislative agenda" or "I have a management plan" or "I have a legal brief." He said, "I have a dream."

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we seem to have lost -- the dream. We have no shortage of legislative agendas. We are not suffering a shortage of management plans or policy analyses. There's certainly no shortage of attorneys willing to file lawsuits. What we've lost is the ability to form a clear and overarching moral vision.

Having taken our eyes off the prize, we tend to get lost in some of the details. We become susceptible to a trivialization of what Dr. King was about and of what we should be about as Americans. The recent debate over "ebonics" is one example. This is the kind of silliness you can get into when you lose your perspective. There are other examples, less obvious than that one and perhaps more insidious. Our debates over more serious topics -- such as crossracial adoptions, affirmative action and school busing -- also reflect a form of myopia; we've lost our long-range vision.

Martin Luther King Jr. was not the only person in the 1960s to dream bold dreams. I remember a warm spring day in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy came to my hometown of Houston. He gave a speech at Rice University stadium in which he promised that by the end of the decade, this nation would have sent a man to the moon and brought him safely back to Earth. It was an audacious goal. Remember, at that time, the United States was behind the Soviet Union in the race for space. Astronaut John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the Earth just a few months earlier. We had a long way to go.

But you know what? Kennedy's audacious dream galvanized the nation. We assembled our best scientists, poured in the money and the hard work, and by the end of the decade, we'd fulfilled JFK's promise.

I also remember a speech that President Lyndon Johnson gave in 1965 in which he promised to fight and win a war against poverty. And you know what? We made huge progress toward fulfilling that promise. This deserves emphasis, because a lot of people today are saying that the Great Society was an unqualified failure. Well it wasn't. In just a few years during the mid-1960s:

  • We reduced poverty rates, especially among the elderly.
  • We extended medical care to millions of Americans.
  • We sent a lot of poor kids to college. I was one of them.

So when you hear people complain about the failures of the Great Society or about the excesses of the 1960s, remember this: Much that happened during that period was good. We sent a man to the moon. We reduced poverty. We increased opportunities for millions of Americans. And for a few bright shining moments, we shared a dream of racial harmony.

But then, some awful things also happened in the 1960s. First, evil men slew our dreamers: John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy -- all slain by assassins' bullets. Then, our energies were sapped by a costly and divisive war in Southeast Asia. By the early '70s, our image of ourselves as a nation of boundless promise had been replaced by foreboding; our optimism had been replaced by pessimism.

  • The Arab oil embargo had reminded us of our dependence on others.
  • Environmentalists began warning us about the limits to growth.
  • The Iranian hostage crisis increased our sense of vulnerability.
  • And the failure of government action to end racism and poverty had led many of us to become disillusioned.

All of those disappointments made us susceptible to a message that said, "Dream less lofty dreams, be satisfied with doing less." "Forget everybody else; look out for No. 1." The generous, open, hopeful spirit of an earlier time gave way to cynicism and self-absorption. We had moved, in the course of just a few years, from being selfless dreamers to being members of the "Me Generation."

Our insecurity and self-centeredness have profoundly affected American political life. Think for a moment about the kinds of things you hear coming out of Washington. When was the last time you heard talk about marshaling this nation's resources to launch the next great space adventure or to cure dread disease or end poverty?

You don't hear much talk like that. Look at what happened to health care reform. President Clinton wanted everyone in America to have decent, affordable health care. It was a noble goal; but it got barely a hearing in Congress.

Instead of inspiring us to do great things, many of our political leaders keep lengthening the list of things that we can't do. They tell us:

  • That we can't afford to take care of our sick;
  • That we can't afford to improve education;
  • That we can't afford to house the homeless; and
  • That this nation of immigrants can't afford to admit more immigrants.

We can't do this, we can't do that. Can't, can't, can't. Frankly, some of our elected leaders don't sound like leaders at all. Instead, they sound like a bunch of gloomy accountants poring over the ledgers of a bankrupt corporation.

Well, I don't think America is bankrupt! We are a great country, filled with people who, when we share a dream, can achieve great things.

For the past 3 1/2 years, I've been privileged to work with an organization that continues to reflect America's can-do spirit -- the U.S. military. The military went through some tough times in the '60s and '70s, but has rebuilt itself into the world's best fighting force. It also is one of the nation's most diverse institutions in terms of race and ethnic composition.

Let's remind ourselves of what our armed forces have done in recent years:

  • During Desert Shield, the military moved 700,000 people halfway around the world, then launched one of the most overwhelming military operations ever conducted. The logistics alone are mind-boggling. Think about it -- moving a population larger than that of Washington, D.C., to one of the world's most barren places and sustaining it for months. But President Bush was determined that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait would not stand. He united our nation behind the goal of routing Saddam Hussein's forces, and the military did it.
  • Remember our humanitarian mission on the Rwanda-Zaire border? Within days after President Clinton gave the order, our military had built an air bridge thousands of miles into central Africa and had begun to provide the clean water and food needed to keep tens of thousands of refugees from dying of disease and starvation. President Clinton said we should do it, the nation supported him, and our armed forces did it.
  • Just over a year ago, we moved some 20,000 troops across the snow-covered mountains and frozen rivers of Central Europe to protect the peace in Bosnia. President Clinton said we should stop the carnage, the nation supported him, and the military did it.

So I know that we, as a nation, can do great things -- if we begin with a noble objective. We turned back aggression in Kuwait, we saved hundreds of thousands of lives in Somalia and Rwanda, we restored a democratic government in Haiti, and we are keeping the peace in Bosnia.

Now I think it is time for us to focus on some noble goals for in the ourselves in the USA.

It is time for us to dream again. It is time for us, as a nation, to envision the great things we want to achieve together, the things we need to achieve together.

One of those things is racial harmony. We are being pushed apart by a variety of forces, including the insidious belief that this country isn't big enough for all of us. Instead of working together to produce and share a bountiful harvest, we're pecking at each other like carrion over scraps. Too few of us are trying to bridge the racial gap. And frankly, too many of our leaders are trying to exploit it.

We need to keep our eyes on the prize. We need to envision a nation where people can be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. Only after we envision what our promised land should look like can we make the plans to get there.

How do we form that vision? How can we pick up the essence of the dream that Martin Luther King shared with us more than 30 years ago and project it into the future? Here's how I think we should proceed:

First, we must dream in color, not just in black and white. Thirty years ago, it made sense to focus exclusively on relations between the two major races in the U.S. But our nation's social canvas has many more hues today than it did then. These demographic changes have huge implications for public policy, especially in areas such as school desegregation and affirmative action. I'm not suggesting that race is unimportant; it is very important. The color line that [William Edward Burghardt] Dubois wrote about nearly a century ago remains an enduring and painful problem. But we cannot see things solely in black and white.

Unfortunately, some of us have no interest in doing anything else; we aren't interested in talking with Hispanic Americans or Asian Americans. If we're to make real progress, however, we must consider the views of fourth-generation Chinese Americans and first-generation immigrants from India. We must find out what they think about race and color, and we must make their dreams part of our American dream.

Second, our dream must be about the future, not about the past. Americans have a distinctive view of time: We assume that the future will be different from the past. This is not just a descriptive notion, it also is a part of our shared system of values. We believe that the future should be different from the past. Thus, we have a particular attitude toward history: Americans learn from the past, but we do not live in the past.

Let me stress how distinctive this attitude is, and how important. In much of the world, people assume that tomorrow will be pretty much like today, just as today was just like yesterday. In much of the world, people assume that a poor man's son will be poor, that a rich man's son will remain rich. In parts of the world -- Bosnia is but one example -- people are still fighting over an injustice committed centuries ago.

We Americans revere our traditions, but we do not wallow in them. We remember our ancestors, but we don't expect to live like them. We expect future that's very different from the past. Indeed, if we don't expect it, and if we don't try to make it happen, then we'll be stuck in the rut of history.

Third, we must do what Dr. King did: share our vision with others. We need to talk about it. We need a national conversation on race. Who are we as a people, and how should America look a generation or two from now? Think about somebody in today's world who may exemplify the future:

  • It might be [jazz musician] Wynton Marsalis, who has mastered the European classics of Handel and Brahms and the American classics of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Marsalis respects both traditions and demands that his audiences respect them, too.
  • It might be architect Maya Lin, whose stirring Vietnam [Veterans] Memorial stands as proof that someone who was not there can feel the grief of a mother whose son has fallen and, years later, cause an entire nation to mourn with her.
  • Or we might derive our vision of the future from a mundane, everyday experience. For example, I grew up in Houston, Texas. One of my favorite places to eat when I was growing up was at a barbecue "joint" -- we didn't call it a "restaurant." It was owned by a black family named Green. Every time I went back to Houston, I'd visit Green's barbecue. A few years ago, I went back and something had changed. Mr. Green was no longer standing behind the cash register. He'd retired and sold his place to a Vietnamese family. But it still serves the same food -- hot, greasy, finger-lickin' good ribs and links. "Quality" in barbecue is measured by pepper and grease.

Those little vignettes contribute to my vision, my dream for America's future. I do not assume that only Europeans can play Handel or that only African Americans can make barbecue or that only someone who fought in Vietnam can understand the tragedy of that conflict. I want America to be a nation where individuals can discover their own interests and develop their unique talents, unconstrained by traditional notions of what people of this race or that sex can and cannot achieve.

That's one of the reasons I've taken such pleasure in my association with the armed forces. The U.S. military has taken equal opportunity seriously. Military leaders understand that the very effectiveness of military units -- the success of their missions -- depends on the ability of people of different backgrounds to work together. Equal opportunity, in other words, is a military necessity.

During her visit to Bosnia, Mrs. Clinton pointed out something else about our armed forces. When the U.S. military, in all its diversity, deploys to some distant trouble spot, its very composition sends a very important message about racial fairness and sexual equity. Sometimes the message isn't entirely welcome; it wasn't appreciated when we initially deployed female soldiers to Saudi Arabia, for example. But our strong belief is that we have the best military on Earth precisely because it was recruited from a richly diverse population. Our armed forces validate that belief every day.

Let me conclude by challenging you to think about the future. What kind of nation do we want our children and grandchildren to live in?

What kind of leaders do we want to have -- those who summon the angels of our better nature or those who urge forth the demons of our resentment? I hope that whatever the future holds, it a future that rewards those who bring us together, not those who tear us apart.

We need to come together, think together about where we want to be in 10 or 20 or 50 years.

As the Bible says, where there is no vision, the people perish. If we cannot envision a future different from the past, we cannot achieve a future different from the past. If we cannot chart our own destiny, we will simply be stuck in one of the ruts of history.

All of us must carry a candle of commitment for equal opportunity, for racial justice, for sexual equality. We have a calling, a special duty -- to ensure that the flame never dies, that the dream lives on.

Let me close by quoting another dreamer, Bobby Kennedy. When asked why he did what he did, he responded, "Some people see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and ask, why not?"

Friends, sisters, brothers all -- it's time to dream again!


Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant 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