American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 26, 2012 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta led the Pentagon in honoring the “lasting impact” of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during its 27th annual observance here today.
“Dr. King’s dream was America’s dream, and as he put it, the dream was about taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by our founding fathers,” Panetta said.
“The simple power of Dr. King’s message resonates across generations,” he said. “It changed my whole life in public service.”
Panetta said as the son of Italian immigrants he had his own experiences with discrimination.
“Enough to know,” he said, “that unless we provide equality to all, regardless of race, color, creed, gender, disability, sexual orientation, … none of us can truly be free.”
Panetta shared some background of his own career during the civil rights movement.
“As many of you know, my own career in public service began at the height of the civil rights movement,” he said. “I was a young legislative assistant in the United States Senate working for California Senator Tom Kuchel, who was very much involved in drafting civil rights legislation.
“I had the opportunity to work on some of the landmark civil rights legislation at that time,” he noted. “I also, at a signing ceremony at the White House with then-President Lyndon Johnson, had a chance to meet Dr. King.”
The defense secretary also spoke about his time serving as director for the U.S. Office for Civil Rights in the early 1970s.
“It was an office that was responsible for enforcing civil rights law, particularly with regards to achieving equal education for all children,” he recalled. “You can imagine this was a tough time.”
Panetta called this time tough for him “politically” due to being in an administration “not that dedicated to strong civil rights enforcement.”
“Ultimately, it cost me my job,” he said. “But it taught me a great deal about where that line is between your conscience, and what’s right and what, sometimes, you’re told to do by others that may not meet the requirements of your conscience.”
Panetta also pointed to highlights in his career, such as casting his vote for a day to commemorate King’s legacy, and fighting “to preserve the progress made that had been made by protecting our national commitment to affirmative action.”
Panetta cited the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law that had barred gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military as removing one of the last “barriers” to allowing everyone to serve the nation.
“[It] ensured that today’s military more closely reflects the society that we are obligated to defend,” he said.
“We can now more proudly say, out of many, we are one,” Panetta added. “So regardless of background, regardless of perspective, every man and every woman at DOD has answered the call to serve.”
The keynote speaker, Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, a leader in the civil rights movement, is the last living person present during King’s final hours before he was assassinated.
Kyles often referred to a quote from Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes, in encouraging others to hold onto their dreams like King did.
“‘Hold fast to your dream for if dreams die you’re like broken-winged birds who cannot fly,’” he quoted Hughes as saying. “Hold fast to your dreams.
“Dreamers, they’re not bound by glass ceilings or brick walls, they don’t go down that road at all,” he added.
“All of us have dreams, [but] some of us have lost our dreams,” the pastor said. “I encourage you to recapture your dream. It’s yours. Nobody has a right to take your dream. It is your dream.”
Panetta lauded King for his “boundless impact” and noted the importance of commemorating the civil rights leader.
“Martin Luther King Day is a chance to ensure that our children and every generation that follows knows Dr. King’s story of courage, strength, dedication, and that all of them can hopefully follow the great example that he set,” the secretary said. “That, I think, in many ways, is the test of life which is whether or not we make a difference.
“Though much has been achieved, Dr. King’s own words remind us that we can never sit still,” he continued. “We have to continue to press ahead to fight each day to make sure we achieve that American dream.
“May God bless our nation and may God bless Dr. King’s enduring hope for a better future,” he said.