Remarks by Deputy Secretary Bob Work at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance at the Pentagon

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work


DEPUTY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE BOB WORK: Well, thank you, Mike, for that kind introduction.

And, welcome, everyone, both the senior leaders and the servicemen and -women of our armed services and the civilians who do so much for the department every day. For those of you who are watching on the Pentagon Channel, both here in the Pentagon and at the Mark Center and to all servicemen around the world.

I can't tell you how great of a pleasure and an honor it is for me to be here on behalf of Secretary Chuck Hagel. As you all know, Secretary Hagel is now making a visit to an Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine base to thank them for their service personally. But, as a result, I am able to be here with you today to pay tribute and lasting -- to pay tribute to the lasting impact of a truly remarkable American patriot and hero.

I was really struck by Chaplain (Lt. Col.) William's word, Martin Luther King was a warrior for freedom, a warrior against oppression, and we are here today to honor him.

Now, (inaudible) every year, the American people have many holidays, and we observe a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King.

It's a very personal one for me, because I grew up in the tumultuous times in which Dr. King fought hard against oppression inside the United States, and I believe set us on the path to win that battle.

And here in the department, as Mike said, we observe Martin Luther King Day in a different way than how we observe other holidays, because the most fitting way to honor Dr. King's legacy is not just to celebrate this holiday and celebrate his achievements, but to act on his words in what we do every day in service of our nation and to continue to work to achieve the dream that he spoke about so passionately and eloquently.

And I can't tell you how much he touched people when he was alive and continues to touch people after his death.

So, today, as we honor this great American, let us also reflect on what we can do, each and every one of us here in this room, throughout the Pentagon, and throughout the armed services of our great nation, to further the struggle for human freedom and dignity that Dr. King helped to lead and for which he ultimately gave his life.

Now, we should take pride in this institution. The Department of Defense was one of the first to begin breaking down the barriers of race in America. Our military is more capable and our force more powerful when we use all of the diverse strengths of our citizens and the American people. That is the fundamental truth that we have seen throughout the time of war and in times of peace, and particularly after the racial integration of the armed services that followed on the heels of World War II.

All Americans owe a real debt of gratitude to those African-American troops and gave their lives by the -- I mean served by the hundreds of thousands and gave their lives to their service, and then returned home and demanded and said we need to have full integration into the armed services. And it's because of their service and sacrifice that in 1948 President Truman was compelled to sign an executive order declaring, quote, "equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense."

That was five years -- five years -- before the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Department of Defense truly was on the leading edge of this battle.

Truman put his own political future at risk by signing that executive order, but he knew in his heart that it was the right thing to do. Full racial integration didn't follow a straight line. It didn't -- we didn't know the steps, as Mike Rhodes said. But, as Dr. King so eloquently put it, “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.”

But it put the military on the path, so that by 1953, the final year of the Korean War, 95 percent of African-American troops were serving as members of integrated units, which was an enormous sea change in the way we operated in World War II.

And today, we are honoring Dr. King and the things that he did to further that vision. And we're gonna be joined by Admiral Michelle Howard in just a second, who is our featured speaker.

She has achieved a number of notable firsts in her career. In 1999, she took command of the USS Rushmore, becoming the first African-American woman to command a combatant ship in the U.S. Navy, the greatest Navy on the planet. This past year, she became both the first woman and the first African-American woman to be promoted to the rank of four-star admiral. Many of you may not know it, but Admiral Howard led task force 151, which oversaw our counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden in 2009, and she oversaw the rescue of Captain Phillips who had been kidnapped from the Maersk Alabama.

I'm still trying to figure out why she wasn't in the movie.

(Laughter.)

Now, I've had the great good fortune to get to know her rather well, first when I served as the undersecretary of Navy, and now, as the deputy secretary of defense, where I interact with the service vices on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis. And I can say, without equivocation, that the United States Navy and our nation is lucky to have Admiral Howard as the Navy's second-in-command. She's the right person in the right time to help lead our Navy. Her optimism, perseverance and hard work are an inspiration to all of those who know her and those who are working to break down the barriers to opportunity. We are really fortunate to have you today, Michelle, and to hear you in just a few minutes.

Before turning the panel, I mean the podium, over to Michelle, I'd just like to close out by quoting President Obama when he spoke four years ago when we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial on the National Mall, something that, in my mind, was long overdue.

He said Dr. King was so quintessentially American because for all the hardships we've endured, for all of our sometimes tragic history, ours is a story of optimism and achievement and constant striving that is unique upon this Earth. And that is why the rest of the world still looks to us to lead.

Now, in my heart I'm an optimist, too. And I'm confident that our country's best years are still ahead of us, that the United States will continue to lead the world by our example, and it will do so bolstered by the knowledge and the confidence that we have the world's finest military that is able and capable of answering any call that we need them to do, a force that if we continue to push for progress, that if we work to ensure equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve, it will remain the greatest equalizing institution in this great country.

So today, as we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday and as we serve our nation and each other, I'd just ask all of us here to recommit ourselves to realizing Dr. King's vision.

Thank you all for joining us here.

And now, without further ado, it is my great honor to introduce Admiral Michelle Howard as our guest speaker.

(Applause.)