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Remarks at the 26th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Observance

As Delivered by Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn, III, Pentagon Auditorium, Thursday, January 13, 2011

Thank you Michael and good morning.

I would like to extend a warm welcome to all the members of the Department and senior leaders joining us this morning, including keynote speaker Jeh Johnson.  Jeh has a very personal connection to the King family, which we are pleased he will share. I would also like to welcome the new House Armed Services Chairman, Representative Buck McKeon.

Today, it is privilege to celebrate the memory and to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Nearly 50 years ago, a quarter million Americans gathered on the mall across the river to hear Dr. King proclaim his great dream for all America. His speech became a singular moment in our history.  The reaction was immediate.

President John Kennedy’s advisors reported he was awed by Dr. King’s words and vision. Freshman Senator Ted Kennedy recalled feeling “fully baptized into the civil rights movement that day.” The Reverend’s dream, he later said, “had become my own.” In my own work for Senator Kennedy, and now as Deputy Secretary, I have seen firsthand how Dr. King’s legacy resonates throughout the men and women of our military.

In fact, the military has played a special role in the civil rights cause for a very long time. Americans of all races have served in our military from its very beginnings.

The first man shot in the Boston Massacre that preceded the Revolutionary War, Crispus Attucks, was of African descent, and nearly 4,000 African Americans joined our fight for independence from Great Britain. During the Civil War, 200,000 African Americans wore the Union uniform. In the course of both World Wars, 1.5 million African Americans served in Europe and in the Pacific.

One of those men was civil rights hero Medgar Evers. After his assassination, Evers was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery.

But as we know, the units they served in remained segregated.  These American soldiers were treated separately and thereby unequally.

Our own singular moment overcoming the practice of segregation came in 1948.  President Harry Truman declared “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services, without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” What Truman did was not only morally right.  It was necessary for the defense of our nation. And he risked his political future to do so. 

The process of integration that followed was not flawless.  But without question, the military took a significant step towards fulfilling Dr. King’s dream 15 years before that historic address riveted the nation. With Truman’s signing of the order, segregation in our military was eliminated.

And today, African Americans constitute a greater percentage of the military than they do as a whole of the population.

As Dr. King said, and President Obama is fond of repeating: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The military is a microcosm of that universe. We are not perfect. We are not immune to the grand struggles society faces. But at key moments we have proudly contributed to our national struggle for equality, helping embody “the dream” Dr. King evoked to transform our nation. 

So today is not only a celebration of Dr. King’s legacy.  It is also a celebration of our own.

Thank you.

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