Pentagon Officials Salute King’s Legacy

By Gerry J. Gilmore

American Forces Press Service  

Jan. 17, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today led the Pentagon’s 23rd annual observance of the birth and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  “This 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,” Gates said.  

King was a Baptist minister and renowned civil rights leader during the late 1950s and early 1960s. He successfully advocated non-violent protest as the best path for African Americans to take in achieving civil rights guaranteed to all Americans under the U.S. Constitution. King was assassinated at age 39 in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.

America honors King’s memory each year on the third Monday of January.  “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,” Gates said.  During African Americans’ struggle for equality, Gates said, King employed tactics “that showed how well he understood the nation he sought to change for the better.”  

Gates recalled the year 1958, when a non-violent “sit-in” led by African-American students in his hometown of Wichita, Kan., “helped end segregation at drug stores throughout Kansas.”  The Defense Department has long promoted racial equality, Gates said. President Harry S. Truman ended segregation across the U.S. military in 1948.  

Gates said he is honored to lead “an institution that began breaking down the barriers of race at the dawn of the modern civil rights revolution.” African American servicemembers, he said, “have represented the United States with honor and distinction” throughout the history of the country.  And, as America wages war against terrorists that threaten the destruction of the homeland, African Americans “have participated in the defense of the nation well beyond their percentage of the population,” Gates pointed out.  The observance’s keynote speaker, Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, follows in the footsteps of such exemplary African American military leaders as former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell; Army Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward, the present-day commander of U.S. Africa Command; and others, Gates said.  

Rochelle, the Army‘s deputy chief of staff for personnel, will oversee an increase of 30,000 active-duty soldiers over the next several years.  “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 the goals without sacrificing the quality we have come to expect in our all-volunteer force,” Gates said. He added that he has “every confidence” in Rochelle’s ability.  “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,” Gates said.  The U.S. military has come a long way since the days of segregation, Rochelle said.

He related the story of World War II soldier Vincent R. Malveaux, who — along with more than 2,200 other U.S. African American troops — volunteered to transfer from support service to front-line infantry duty in early 1945 following the Battle of the Bulge in Europe. Malveaux and the other volunteers, he said, were required to drop in rank in order to fight against the German forces.  Malveaux had been a first sergeant and became a private.

He and other African American volunteers fought with distinction with 309th Infantry Battalion, 78th Infantry Division. Malveaux earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Bronze Star Medal and multiple campaign medals.  However, the U.S. Army of that time was still segregated, Rochelle said, noting Malveaux’s and others’ awards were denied. Malveaux’s and some other soldiers’ medals were restored and presented in 1998 at a Pentagon ceremony. 

 Rochelle said he’d spoken recently with Malveaux, now nearly 90, and asked the World War II veteran why he and his fellow soldiers volunteered for front-line service all those years ago.  Malveaux’s answer, the three-star general said, was simply: “‘To whom much is given, much is expected.'”


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