Panetta: Honor King’s Legacy With Action

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta delivers remarks during the Defense Department's 28th annual Martin Luther King Jr. observance at the Pentagon, Jan. 24, 2013

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Washington, DC – Action is the best way to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said here today (January 24).

Speaking at the Pentagon’s 28th annual observance of the holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader, Panetta noted that August will mark 50 years since the famed march on Washington in which King shared his vision for a more just and equal society.

“The most fitting way to honor [King’s] legacy is not just to celebrate a holiday, but to act on his work … in order to achieve the dream that he spoke about,” Panetta said.

“Americans of every background have chosen to renew Dr. King’s legacy, because his dream is the American [dream].”

Panetta recalled meeting King at a White House function while developing civil rights laws as a congressional legislative assistant during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration.

“It was remarkable having worked on that legislation, then to see the individual who … created the inspiration for Congress to act on changing the laws that had for so long segregated individuals in this country,” Panetta said.

The secretary recalled discrimination he witnessed during his first Army assignment at Fort Benning, Ga., in the 1960s.

“You saw the reality of communities that had been divided by race,” the secretary said. “I saw the world that Dr. King was fighting to change and knew that America could not be true to its founding creed of equality if it did not change.”

Three years after leaving the Army, Panetta served as the director for the Office of Civil Rights, where he helped to implement the landmark integration case, Brown vs. the Board of Education.

“It was not easy working … throughout the South trying to desegregate schools,” Panetta said. “I saw individuals, black and white, who were willing to do what was right, knowing that they would probably lose their jobs. That kind of courage … is ultimately what … produced the success of the civil rights movement in this country.”

The secretary emphasized the importance of diversity rooted in King’s vision. “Our military is more capable, our force is more powerful when we use all of the diverse strengths of the American people,” he said. “Their career success and their specific opportunities should be based solely on their ability to successfully carry out their assigned missions — everyone deserves that chance.”

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