Lynn: Military Legacy is Key in King’s ‘Dream’ Vision

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)

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