WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2011 — Members of the armed forces historically have played a role in the fight for civil rights, Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III said today at the Pentagon’s 26th annual observance of honoring civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The national holiday commemorating King’s birthday is observed Jan. 17 this year.
“Americans of all races have served in our military from its very beginnings,” Lynn told a packed Pentagon auditorium as he outlined the history of significant military moments in the fight for civil rights.
“The first man shot in the Boston Massacre that preceded the Revolutionary War, Crispus Attucks, was of African descent,” Lynn said. “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.”
During World Wars I and II, Lynn said, 1.5 million African-Americans served in Europe and in the Pacific.
One of those men, Lynn noted, was civil rights leader Medgar Evers. After his assassination in June 1963, Evers was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. However, the deputy secretary noted, Evers and his African-American contemporaries served in segregated military units.
“These American soldiers,” he said, “were treated separately, and thereby unequally.”
Calling it “our own singular moment of overcoming the practice of segregation,” Lynn recounted that President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order in 1948 that eliminated segregation in the military, but he acknowledged that the process of integration in the military that followed was not flawless.
Still, Lynn said, the military took a significant step toward fulfilling King’s dream 15 years before the historic “I Have a Dream” speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial here to an audience of 250,000 people on Aug. 28, 1963.
Today, Lynn told the audience, African-Americans constitute a greater proportion of the military than in the nation’s population.
“As Dr. King said, and President [Barack] Obama is fond of repeating,” he said, “ ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ ”
The military, Lynn said, is a microcosm of that universe.
“We are not perfect,” he said. “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,” he added. “It is also a celebration of our own.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)