By Airman 1st Class Breonna Veal , 17th Training Wing Public Affairs
/ Published January 15, 2014
GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
The U.S. government recognizes noted civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.'s significant impact on the equal rights of African-Americans and other diverse groups with a federal holiday, recognized the third Monday of January each year. King's influence expands beyond the civilian world and has had wide-ranging effects on today's military operation.
From enslaved blacks forced to fight in the Revolutionary War to the first black commander in chief, the African-American presence permeates in the history of the United States military and continues to influence the present.
Throughout the years, African-Americans have endured segregation, from drinking fountains to restrooms, but it didn't stop them from volunteering to join the armed forces even though they were largely relegated to support roles and didn't see combat. Still, this didn't prevent them from making a notable difference. From the Buffalo Soldiers of the Indian Wars to the Harlem Hellfighters of World War I, African-Americans have served their country with honor.
For Tech. Sgt. Brandon Holliman, 17th Training Wing Equal Opportunity NCO in charge, one group of African-American military members emerges from the rest.
"As a member of the World's Greatest Air Force, the Tuskegee Airmen definitely stand out to me, as they were the first African-American U.S. military pilots," said Holliman. "The Tuskegee Airmen at that time were still victims of racial discrimination whether they were in the uniform or not. They still showed up for duty every day with a mindset that they had a job to do."
Despite being pilots and highly recognized, these Airmen still experienced racial discrimination, both in and outside the military. These Airmen were collectively awarded a Congressional Gold Medal and many members of this elite flying squadron moved on to become important people in history.
While the Tuskegee Airmen were serving during WWII, they and many other African-Americans were still controlled by the Jim Crow laws. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Jim Crow laws were a set of laws created between 1876 and 1965 to segregate African-Americans legally in all public facilities in the southern states. These laws contributed to the conditions that would, in the long run, lead to segregation in the military as well.
While fighting for America, blacks found themselves fighting for the belief "that all men are created equal," a statement written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence and echoed by King.
By the early 1950s, this struggle was leading to laws and orders slowly changing segregation in America and the military. President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 July 26, 1948, integrating the military and stipulating equal treatment and opportunity for all members of the armed forces. Other laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Act of 1965 followed closely behind.
The African-American civil rights movement began alongside these laws in 1955. Civil rights activists gathered together throughout the United States to end racial segregation and discrimination, not only in the civilian world, but in the military as well. Blacks were becoming stronger, braver and more firm in their long fight for equality.
At this time, King played a significant role in the non-violent fight for equality. He was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent activism and chose to do the same. King, along with other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization created to keep black churches non-violent through their civil rights protests.
For Holliman, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is more than just a holiday.
"As a military member, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a day for reflection of a visionary whom attacked inequality without aggression and/or violence," said Holliman. "He was definitely committed to paving a new path for all people."
In 1963, King, along with the SCLC and other organizations, orchestrated the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. People from all over the country came together in front of the Lincoln Memorial to listen to King give the famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
In this speech, King asked that racial segregation end and that civil rights legislation rulings be meaningful. He asked African-Americans to have decency as they fight for their rights.
"We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline," said King during his speech. "We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence."
In his dream, King envisioned an equal America, for his children and all people.
"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream," said King. "It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'"
Despite Executive Order 9981 and changes sweeping the nation, segregation still played a prevalent role in the military. During the Korean War, all-black units were still enforced for example, but the influence of equality was being felt, and by the beginning of the Vietnam War, segregation on the military was near non-existent.
King's assassination closely coincided with the beginning of the Vietnam War and heavily impacted military views. Incidents of segregation became few and far between. This became the era of equality in the military and many achievements followed in the African-American society. In 1968, U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. James Anderson Jr. became the first African-American U.S. Marine recipient of the Medal of Honor and U.S. Army Capt. Riley Leroy Pitts became the first African-American commissioned officer to be awarded the same. In 1989, Army Gen. Colin Powell became the first and the only African-American, to date, to be appointed as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
From the first days of America to today, equal rights have significantly evolved.
"African-Americans have come a long way in the military and all over the world," said Holliman. "I would like to put it in a very short and sweet perspective. African-Americans came from slavery to the first black president and if that's not progress, I don't know what is!"
Holliman also said he believes that King's statement, "faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase," applies to military members and daily lives.
"We have the ability to continue to put our best foot forward every day," said Holliman. "Tough days are inevitable, but continuing to have the faith that tomorrow will be a better day will serve us well."
King fought long and hard for equality across all races and did it as peacefully as he knew how. As time passed after his death, many pieces of his dream from his speech came true.
"When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"