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Members of the Washington Freedom Riders Committee, en route to Washington from New York, hang signs from bus windows to protest segregation. Courtesy Library of Congress Martin Luther King Jr. Courtesy photo
On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with Martin Luther King Jr. after presenting him with one of the pens used to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Courtesy Library of Congress Martin Luther King Jr. stands with his wife, Coretta, and daughter Yolanda in 1956. Copyright Sandra Weiner/National Portrait Gallery Martin Luther King Jr. meets with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the White House. Courtesy John F. Kennedy Library
Gates Pays Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

Robert M. Gates photoThis is a day to remember a great American. It is also a day to reflect on what we can do to further the struggle for human freedom and dignity that Dr. King helped lead and for which he gave his life.

Dr. King pushed the country to adhere to the just and true idea on which it was founded: that all human beings are equal in their God-given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In fighting for an end to racial discrimination, he used tactics that showed how well he understood the nation he sought to change for the better.

He said: “The only weapon that we have in our hands . . . is the weapon of protest.”

Nonviolent protest was a tactic that could not be employed just anywhere.  At the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Dr. King said: “If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a communistic nation, we couldn’t do this. If we were trapped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime, we couldn’t do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”

It is easy to forget, at this distance in time, that change was needed everywhere, not just in the south.

In 1958, when I was 14, nonviolent protest came to my home town of Wichita, Kansas. There was a drug-store chain called Dockum, and at one of its Wichita stores that summer, a group of some 20 black teenagers and young adults sat down for service at the lunch counter. They were refused. They kept coming back for three weeks, endured many indignities, until the management changed its policy.

This bold action by the local youth chapter of the NAACP was the first successful, student-led sit-in of its kind. It helped end segregation at drug stores throughout Kansas, pre-dating by two years the more famous sit-ins at a North Carolina Woolworth’s.

I now have the honor of leading an institution that began breaking down the barriers of race at the dawn of the modern civil rights revolution. African Americans have represented the United States with honor and distinction. In recent years, they have participated in the defense of the nation well beyond their percentage of the population.

Our featured speaker today, Lieutenant General Michael Rochelle, has charge of the United States Army’s personnel system at a crucial time. The force needs to expand, and General Rochelle, as "the" Army G-1, is overseeing the first significant increase in a generation. It is a tall order – to grow the force in a way that relieves the stress from current military operations, enables the United States to meet its commitments at home and abroad, and

achieves these goals without sacrificing the quality we have come to expect in our all-volunteer force.

I have every confidence in him. The Army and the nation are depending on General Rochelle, and my hope and expectation is that, in the years ahead, more African Americans will staff the Army and other branches at the highest levels following the examples set by Generals Colin Powell, Kip Ward, and many others.

General Rochelle has often spoken of mentoring young people to encourage minorities and women to excel, and to grasp the opportunities for advancement that the armed forces provide. As Dr. King said, “human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” It takes “people of goodwill put[ting] their bodies and their souls in motion.”

Everyone at the department must be sensitive to the need to build these mentoring relationships, and must act to make sure that this is taking place in every service, at every level.

Only if we make this concerted effort will our military continue to be the greatest equalizing institution in the United States of America. Let us keep pushing for progress. We must keep pushing for progress. In the words of Martin Luther King, “Let us march to the realization of the American dream.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates
Jan. 17, 2008
At the Pentagon