The Bayonet

Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014

Remember King’s legacy

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Editor’s note: The following are Fort Benning’s Commanding General Maj. Gen. H. R. McMaster’s remarks at the Martin Luther King ceremony Jan. 15.

African-American military service was inexorably connected to participation in public life and the long, ongoing struggle for equality. Long before the Civil War in the 1860s removed the blight of slavery from our nation and long before the struggle for civil rights secured key victories in the 1960s, African-Americans fought for their nation in every war, knowing that the great American experiment in democracy and freedom based in our belief in unalienable rights — especially that all men are created equal — was still a work in progress. We know that the conventional wisdom that black military service, especially in wartime, inspired linear progress toward equality is far from accurate. The U.S. military reflected inequalities in American society while also playing a vital role in dispelling the myths and eroding the racism that underpinned those inequalities. We should today honor the memory of Soldiers who endured hardships while serving their nation honorably. As African-Americans served, broader social and political developments such as the end of slavery, reconstruction through separate but equal, and the early stages of the civil rights movement constituted progress toward equal rights. It was not linear progress, however. Rising expectations often gave way to disappointment and retrenchment of racial prejudice. African-American and minority Soldiers, however, remained determined, despite hardship and insult, to serve their Nation and secure equality.

Despite the many disappointments across two centuries, the story we remember today is positive as the American military transformed slowly into an institution where African-Americans could fully belong and enjoy equal treatment.

Yet, while there has been tremendous progress toward equality across the past 150 years, we must not be satisfied or complacent, especially in our military. That is because the stakes are high in combat and the strength of our military forces, and indeed our nation, is our cohesion and teamwork. Nothing is more destructive to teams than racism or any form of prejudice. Our Army’s and Marine Corps’ squads, platoons, and companies take on the quality of a family as they fight together, endure hardships together, mourn together, and celebrate victories together. The same holds true for our Airmen, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen. Our military forces are teams of teams in which men and women are willing to give everything, including their lives, for one another. Military men and women are bound together by a common sense of duty, loyalty to our Constitution, trust in each other, and respect for each other and for their fellow man. So, in addition to celebrating Dr. King’s life and legacy today, we must recommit ourselves to preserving and expanding the equality inherited from those who have gone before us.

While expanding the commitment to equality, our military must both meet the expectations of and set the example for those in whose name we fight. On training grounds and battlegrounds, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen from diverse backgrounds are introduced to and internalize our values — loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. As our servicemen and -women share hardships and confront dangers, prejudices and myths wash away. A strength of our society is that many military men and women carry their experience and commitment to equality with them when they leave service. In a democracy, the military must stay connected to the people in whose name it fights. As our military force gets smaller, it is even more important that we attract the best into service at all levels regardless of race or ethnicity. It is for these reasons that today’s all-volunteer force must remain representative of our society, especially as such a small percentage of today’s youth serve. Our military experience reminds us that when equal opportunity is extended, the very best come from all walks of American life.

The theme of this year’s observance is “Remember! Celebrate! Act! A day on, not a day off.” And today we are fortunate to have for our guest speaker an officer who has exemplified Dr. King’s ideas of respect and equality for all and taking action to ensure that equality. Lt. Col. Dawson Plummer is the commander of 1st Battalion, 81st Armored Regiment. A graduate of Tuskegee University, Georgia Tech University and the School of Advanced Military Studies, Plummer has served in a variety of assignments in the United States, Korea, and Iraq. Significantly, over the course of his career, Plummer has demonstrated time and again his commitment to living our Army values and to setting an example of what right looks like to all those who have served with him. Dawson, thanks for joining us today.

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