Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you so much for that warm welcome and for the honor of speaking with you today.
I have to say I feel very comfortable here, coming from a family with several veterans. My brother served in the Air Force, my daughter in the Navy, and I'm married to a Marine.
Now, before you say anything, I do have a grandson so there is still an opportunity to get a soldier in the family, thereby saving the best for last and fixing what I know is a glaring omission.
This is my first visit to Fort Riley, but I know its history extends back to before Kansas became a state - before "Bleeding Kansas" became the first front in the war to free a people from slavery.
I also know that Fort Riley was at times home to two regiments of Buffalo Soldiers, former slaves and free blacks who came together to serve a nation that had only just granted them their freedom. Men who carried on the tradition many of their forefathers had begun when they fought in the Continental Army.
Indeed, the military has often led the way when it comes to the area of civil rights. Beginning integration in 1948, well ahead of many parts of society. Being called forward time and again to protect civil rights marchers and courageous students as they desegregated schools. And serving as a shining example of an organization where merit is valued above all other qualities in choosing leaders.
The expression of that idea, so eloquently framed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is what made great change possible in America.
His life and death made it possible for a colored girl raised in a small, segregated North Carolina town to become the first African-American and the first woman to become chancellor of the University of Kansas.
Dr. King made it possible for a boy born of a mother from Kansas and an absentee father from Kenya to move into the White House. And his legacy will continue to enable and inspire millions more to achieve their dreams here and around the world.
It is for these reasons - for bending the long arc of history even more towards justice - that Dr. King's legacy endures to this day. And it is why we celebrate and honor him still.
I had the opportunity to hear Dr. King speak in 1967. I was a psychology student at the time, attending my first professional conference. Needless to say, having Martin Luther King as the speaker at your very first conference sets the bar high for all the ones that follow.
He spoke during what he called "difficult days" - a time when some in the civil rights movement were turning away from non-violent action, and when protests and riots in the nation's cities -over poverty, discrimination, and the Vietnam War - were growing.
Even then, Dr. King continued his call for reaffirming "our belief in building a democratic society, in which blacks and whites can live together as brothers, where we will all come to see that integration is not a problem, but an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity."
We have continued to build that society and have made great strides since that day; and since the dark night in Memphis when Dr. King was struck down.
But the work is still unfinished.
We've seen an African-American ascend to the military's highest post, and then saw the nation go one step further when it made Barack Obama the Commander-in-Chief.
But there is still work left to do.
We've made strides in reducing poverty, but it still saps the promise of too many Americans. And it still hits blacks and Latinos hardest.
We've opened the doors of education so that students of all backgrounds achieve great things. But students of color still face immense challenges in achieving their dreams.
Yes, the work is still unfinished. But as we seek to create a society that truly lives up to Dr. King's legacy I believe we can look to the United States military for guidance.
Those of you in the Army understand fully King's dream of a day when we are judged on the content of our character not the color of our skin, because you are serving in an organization that at its very essence aspires to achieve this dream.
You serve in one of the most diverse organizations in our society. Where you and your leaders are judged by your abilities, your work ethic, and your dedication, and not by your race or ethnicity, where you were born or your parents' station in life.
Yours is a meritocracy, where all - from sergeants to generals - are selected on a competitive basis, regardless of race, religion or nationality. I applaud you for living the legacy and serving the dream that Dr. King held so fondly.
We all know that Martin Luther King, Jr., epitomized the strength born of non-violent protests in favor of what he knew was right. I have no doubt, however, that the work you do in the service of our country supports his vision for our country.
His statement that "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" speaks eloquently to your lives of service and sacrifice for our country and for those who seek the freedom to live in peace.
Your work in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-torn countries of the world is in service to the ideals of the American people. You have sacrificed the comforts of home for the betterment of others; people that you, like Dr. King, may never know personally, but whose lives you and he have touched.
I think it is fair to state that Dr. King would understand General Ulysses Grant's statement that he had "never advocated war except as a means of peace." King's work was also intended to achieve peace within our own society. You work on a broader canvas and, like him, you seek peace. Force is not the first option, but the last resort.
Dr. King certainly understood that not every profession or calling would be similar to his own. He did, however, urge all of us no matter our life's work, to "do it well." Dr. King said that "a man should do his job well so that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better."
As soldiers you are in many respects the keepers and proponents of Dr. King's legacy. When you bring peace and stability to those living in impoverished and violent communities, and when you reach out to people in need, as is happening in Haiti right now, you are putting Dr. King's vision into action.
You are truly living what Dr. King described as "the complete life" a life measured by its length, breadth and height.
King told a congregation in Chicago that: the length is: "that inward concern that causes one to push forward to achieve his own goals and ambitions." He said the breadth of life "is the outward concern for the welfare of others. And the height of life is the upward reach for God."
Our intelligence and skills are the tools we can use to fulfill the length of life, but only if we find our personal calling and spend every day in pursuit of that calling. And because our society rewards such frivolity as fame for fame's sake we must look deep inside ourselves to find our true calling.
Few of us will be called to be president. Few of us will be called to be astronauts or concert pianists. But each of us will be called to a purpose. And through a commitment to fulfilling that purpose we can achieve our calling, and live the meaningful lives we are meant to live.
This is challenging - to use every day to fulfill our purpose but it is only one dimension of the complete life, King tells us. The second dimension requires great moral fortitude to reach beyond ourselves. This is what you have committed your lives to - to lifting up those around you, regardless of whether they have been brought low by a dictator or an earthquake.
When we reach beyond our own needs we truly become our brother's and sister's keepers. We then ask not, "What will I gain through my action?" But instead, "What will society lose through my inaction?"
That is the essence of the breadth of life: Service to others, despite the risk or the cost. It is a dimension that King lived to its fullest, ultimately costing him his life. It is a dimension that the men and women of our military demonstrate every time they put on the uniform, and that their families demonstrate every time they kiss a loved one goodbye.
The final dimension - the height of life - calls on us to find an even broader meaning to our lives. For many of us, we find that meaning through God - by loving and serving God no matter by what name we may call Him.
Yet, regardless of your faith, and even whether you choose to worship, this broader meaning is still relevant. It is a voice in each of us telling us to stand up for what is right and just. A sense of connection to our planet and those we share it with. And a desire to make each day better than the last.
That is the height of life. And it is the final element of a complete life. A life devoted to achieving our own destiny. To helping others achieve theirs. And to finding the true meaning of the finite time each one of us is given on Earth.
It is to that complete life that we should aspire every day. That is what I think of when I think of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I salute and thank each of you on the occasion of this celebration. I could think of no group of men and women who through their lives of selfless service better exemplify the sacrifices Dr. King made for our own peace and freedom in this country.