Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Pentagon Observance

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As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Pentagon Auditorium, Washington D.C., Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thank you very much, Mike, and ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for joining us today to recognize memory and lasting impact of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The American people have set aside one day each year to recognize Dr. King's legacy. But very frankly we feel the impact of that legacy every day, because Dr. King's dream was the American dream. As he put it, the dream was about "taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers."

The simple power of Dr. King's message resonates across generations, and it shaped my own life in public service. And as the son of Italian immigrants, I had my own experience confronting discrimination "enough to know that unless we provide equality to all, regardless of race, color, creed, gender, disability, sexual orientation" unless we provide equality to all, none of us can truly be free.

As many of you know, my own career in public service began at the height of the civil rights movement.

   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, and I also "at a signing ceremony at the
   White House with then President Lyndon Johnson" had the chance to
   meet Dr. King.

   In the early 1970's, I also had the chance and the opportunity to
   serve as the Director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights. It was
   an office that was responsible for enforcing the civil rights law
   especially with regards to achieving equal education for all
   children. As you can imagine, this was a tough time. Moving
   throughout "largely the South" to see if we could ultimately bring
   black and white children together. And it was tough politically for
   me, because I was in an administration that was not that dedicated
   to strong civil rights enforcement and ultimately it cost me my
   job. 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.

   Years later, as a member of Congress, I worked on civil rights laws
   in the Congress, and one of my proudest moments was the opportunity
   to cast my vote to set aside a day to commemorate Dr. King.

   As Chief of Staff to President Clinton, I had the opportunity to
   continue the fight to preserve the progress that had been made by
   protecting our national commitment to affirmative action.

   And finally, as Director of CIA and now as Secretary of Defense, I
   have worked and I think it is important to do everything we can to
   increase diversity at these two institutions of national security.
   I believe both these institutions and the country are stronger when
   all who are able and willing to defend America are allowed to do
   so.

The military has always had a very special place in our country's progress towards equality. From the first battles of the Revolutionary War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, warriors from all backgrounds have fought and they died for this nation. …