Stayce Harris

Address at the DOD Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Observance

delivered 25 January 2017, The Pentagon, Washington, D.C.

Audio AR-XE mp3 of Address


[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

Thank you so much. For Secretary Mattis, on his departure; Secretary Work, thank you for hosting this event. It's an absolute privilege to be here with you today to honor Dr. Martin Luther King and his legacy. Secretary Disbrow, thank you also for taking the time to be here with us today and thank you for your leadership of our great Air Force. Mr. Rhodes, thank you for the kind introduction and more importantly thank you for your long and distinguished record of dedication and service to the men and women in uniform.

Distinguished guests, general and flag officers, our senior executive service, senior leaders across the Joint Force, to our soldiers, sailors, marines, coasties, airmen, and civilian teammates and families, as well as our international partners attending, welcome. Most importantly, though, I want to thank everyone who helped make this event a reality and continue to give us an opportunity each year to honor Dr. King.

We're gathering for a noble purpose. As the legacy of Dr. King will certainly endure without our annual gathering, but by pausing in remembrance today, we show that we're making this a priority and that we're cementing his legacy one day at a time.

I was only four years old when Dr. King gave his I Have a Dream speech at the march on Washington in 1963. And at that time my family was living in Tachikawa, Japan, as I am an air force brat. And when I look at the pictures from back then when I was four years old, taken from birthday parties with other children, I was already living in the world that Dr. King mentioned of where "little black boys and black girls" were able "to join hands with little white boys and white girls," and walk together "as sisters and brothers" because our military at the time was integrated and leading our nation’s journey into [de]segregation.

My connection to Dr. King began, though, when I was nearly nine years old, when he was assassinated on that fateful day on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in 1968. And although even then I didn't quite understand the magnitude of the man he was, what I witnessed from my parents, from our friends, from the television coverage was the emotion of extreme sorrow and grief. By then, we were living in Newburgh, New York because my father was stationed at Stewart Air Force Base. Racial tensions in Newburgh were already smoldering and the death of Dr. King was like adding fuel, and the emotions of sorrow and grief turned to outrage and anger that turned Newburgh into a fire of civil unrest.

Out of the ashes of the fires, though, of anger and despair that roared across our nation, wisdom and righteousness prevailed. As the Fair Housing Act, which was called the Civil Rights Act of 1968, was passed shortly thereafter. It prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex. And although the bill was a subject of a contentious debate in the Senate, it was passed quickly by the House the days after the assassination of Dr. King. It was signed into law by President Johnson exactly one week following Dr. King’s death.  The act stands as the final great legislative achievement of the civil rights era. In life and death, Dr. King was a catalyst for change. Righteousness prevailed and his legacy was forever woven into the fabric of who we all are today.

So, if you think of words to describe Dr. King, you may use "kindness" and "compassion" and "equality" and "strength" and "vision" and "love." In almost every context, these words symbolize the ingredients in a recipe for unity. While he was a man fighting for justice and equality among all races and all our glorious skin colors, the traits he lived by were colorless. His actions and deeds rose above the limitations of sight but settled upon the strength of his vision for a better world. So today I'd like to spend just a few minutes talking about his remarkable hero’s vision of service and change, and the challenge all of us to embody his ideals in our daily lives.

Every American generation faces its challenges and ours is no different. We are living in the midst of a significant social and political evolution taking place across our nation and all around the world. Our fellow citizens are questioning the American Dream and in many cases the sense of fear and anxiety is palpable. But what will carry us as a nation through these turbulent times and make us stronger, I would argue that the answer lies in the American ideals, Dr. King’s ideals of service and change.

Dr. King once said life’s most persistent and urging question is “What are you doing for others?” You all serving our country understand the importance of this message more than most. It's what sets you apart and why your fellow citizens hold you in such high regard. In fact, many of our brothers and sisters have embodied the truest form of selfless service and courage, giving their lives for the security of our nation and the values we hold so dear.

The spirit of service is hardwired in our DNA, men and women in uniform. And I would argue that it's also hardwired in all Americans, regardless of race, color, creed, religion. As Americans, service is inherent in our character and in a great degree defines who we are as a nation. Dr. King believed in a nation of freedom and justice for all and encouraged all citizens to live up to the purpose of potential of America, to make this country a better place to live. And I say there's rarely a better way that we can do this than through daily service to others.

In our military we have opportunities to serve with compassion even in the midst of war, through humanitarian assistance at home and abroad, rescuing and saving lives of our own that are injured or in peril, and building capacities of our partners to be self-sufficient. Our service extends to our communities as it has traditionally been with our guard and reserve and civilian teammates and increasingly so with our active duty that now resides off base. We live, work, play, vote, and volunteer in the communities where we live. Whether it be our fraternities and our sororities -- and I must say hello to my sisters of Delta Sigma Beta Sorority -- through schools or faith-based organizations, public service organizations, and non-profit organizations, we serve.

So we can never forget that Dr. King’s idea of service is a game changer, giving us the power to individually and collectively transform others’ lives for the better. It's one of the few things we can employ every day for the good of our fellow Americans. We all have the power to change lives through service and there's never been a better time or more acute need for us to all take action and serve. So every year we celebrate a day of service in January to honor Dr. King’s birthday. I believe it's a perfect way to start a new year. It's a day on, not a day off. We should be celebrating his legacy every day, though, serving others. So I challenge you to continue to live a life of service one day at a time.

Now I'll shift gears and talk for a moment or two on Dr. King’s vision for change. His life story and application of nonviolence in the face of social injustice are tremendous examples about how we can all be agents of change for the better. He shows us that the commitment and character of the few can alter the course of history of the many. All too often it starts with the words “you can’t,” which we've all heard at some time in our lives. A remarkable attribute, though, to our men and women in uniform is the desire to excel, to contribute, to exist with a fiery passion; and from my experience one of the best ways to get something done is to just happen to say or to challenge one and say, “You know what, I don't think we can do it. It can’t be done.” Just tell them, “You can’t.” Then sit back and watch as they prove you wrong. And when we tell a race or gender that they can’t be someone or they can’t do something, we provoke a powerful response. This is, “Yes, we can.”1

We can break that barrier like the Buffalo Soldiers, like the Montford Point Marines, like my personal heroes, the WASP, and the Tuskegee Airmen. Even in 2017, our Air Force celebrates its 70th birthday. We pride ourselves on braking barriers -- barriers not only in the air and space, but culturally, beginning with race and gender. Many of these barriers were broken in response to, “You can’t.” It started because “You can’t” is incendiary. It is like the fuel that powers our jets, and our rockets, and our innovative spirit. “You can’t” is a highly flammable substance at odds with the fire that lives in the belly of our military members. And when you mix “You can’t” with this fire a storm takes shape and pressures build and as a result the tension needs an outlet; and what evolves are bold and innovative ways to make change and solve problems.

However, we only have to look at the history of our great Tuskegee Airmen to realize that breaking these barriers was not always received with open arms. In light of this, Dr. King’s teachings refer us to creative tension leading to change.

In a letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. King spoke of nonviolent direct action, creating tension within a community, forcing it to confront the issue. He wrote,

I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension but there is a type of constructive tension that is necessary for growth.2

If the tensions we faced during Dr. King’s time endures today -- they do endure today, but I say this with careful distinction -- we are wise to put this tension to good use.

So, I remember in my previous job, I was a 22nd Air Force Commander at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, and I took command there in 2014. And I had a number of units and one of them was a flying training group, the 340th Flying Training Group, and they were responsible for teaching our pilots how to fly at undergraduate pilot training, and also for providing military training instructors at -- at basic. And when I met with them shortly after I'd gotten there, they were telling me of a tragic incident that had happened.

And a couple of years prior, and a -- during a training flight, the aircraft suffered an accident and our pilots perished, two pilots. One was on active duty at that time and the other was a reservist on what we call an inactive duty status -- and it's just a pay status. Once the families had grieved and -- and had their funerals, it was on to the business of the -- the compensation that they were to receive. So the person on -- the family of the person on active duty received full compensation for that tragic death. But that person on a different pay status did not, and received significantly less.

So there was a movement going on, a passion, a creative tension that said, “This is not right.” When an airman serves, you all serve. You all deserve, especially the families, the same compensation. So they worked it through, myself at 22nd Air Force, and then through the Air Force Reserve Command, and then through the Air Force, and then finally this year it's in our NDAA language. But it takes time. Change takes time and it was a long, hard road. Hard things are hard. Change isn't easy or comfortable but we all are in positions to use this creative tension to change our organizations and our communities -- and even the world.

Dr. King said,

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Equally important, we are responsible for fostering change with those who work with us and we owe it to each other to create and promote environments where "diversity" and "inclusion" aren’t simply buzz words. They are national security imperatives and true force multipliers. Our nation demands -- our nation demands we use 100% of the talent, innovation, and experience to bring forth the solutions to our most complex challenges; and each and every one of us know that we can be that spark of change. So let's commit to each other and let's follow in Dr. King’s footsteps in bringing true change in each other’s lives.

So I'll end by reading a quick letter that Airman 3rd Class Richard P. Clemens sent to Dr. King in January, 1966.

Dr. Reverend King,

As a young white American of nineteen years of age, I would simply like to express my profound respect and utmost appreciation for your efforts in the cause of humanity. Your steady guiding hand and spirit have led many to see the light of moral right. I respect you ever so highly and wish you the very best in all that life here and hereafter has to offer.3

So we, too, echo that sage wisdom of this 19-year-old airman, offering our profound respect and utmost appreciation for Dr. King and his vision of service and change for the cause of humanity. We are a great country and we owe it to Dr. King and our fellow citizens to carry on the legacy -- knowing that service is many times difficult and that the hard work of change will always be at odds with the endless “You cant’s” we will face.

In closing, though, I look forward to continuing to serve with you all and all of us accepting the challenge of being agents of change for the betterment of the world.

Thank you.

Book/CDs by Michael E. Eidenmuller, Published by McGraw-Hill (2008)

1 These words also formed the primary slogan of the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama. See here, here, and here for selected speeches with the phrase.

2 See The King Center quotation under "CREATIVE TENSION"

3 Source unconfirmed

Audio Source:

Audio Note: AR-XE = American Rhetoric Extreme Enhancement

Research Note: Principal transcription by South Transcription Unlimited, Inc. | | | (+63) 920.921.8709. Supplementary transcription work and oversight by Michael E. Eidenmuller.

Page Updated: 8/4/22

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