Remarks as prepared for delivery
I am very happy to be back at Fort Leavenworth, and proud to be able to visit with you today about our nation’s history and its future.
I come from a family of veterans. My brother served in the Air Force and my daughter in the Navy. And I may regret mentioning this to you, but I’m married to a Marine. Don’t worry – I do have a grandson, so there is still an opportunity to get a soldier in the family.
The University of Kansas is proud of its strong partnership with Fort Leavenworth, the Command and General Staff College, and the United States Army.
We are honored to welcome wounded warriors to our campus to continue their education and their service to our nation. We benefit from your knowledge and experiences through initiatives like the Media and the Military program, which helps create understanding between soldiers and aspiring journalists. And we are pleased to partner with you to offer courses and degree programs such as the master’s degree programs in supply chain management and logistics, in global and international studies, and in interagency studies.
We’re proud of Fort Leavenworth, because the work that takes place here is a reflection of how the United States military continues to be a center for scholarship and progress. Indeed, the military has often led the way in our nation’s history, particularly on the issue of civil rights.
The United States military has a proud history of upholding the highest standards of democracy. It is that proud history – and its meaning for the future – that I’d like to talk about today.
The United States military is a shining example of an organization where merit is valued above all other qualities in choosing leaders. The expression of that idea is what made great change possible in America.
That change 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.
It made it possible for the son of Jamaican immigrants living in Harlem to rise to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then secretary of state.
And it made it possible for a boy born of a mother from Kansas and an absentee father from Kenya to move into the White House.
Those changes continue today, as our nation’s history of living up to its full potential is still being written.
Over the course of our history, the United States military has been called upon to defend our nation and our democracy “against all enemies foreign and domestic.”
Your predecessors preserved the Union, defeated Nazi tyranny and faced down the Evil Empire.
But the United States military was also called upon to protect civil rights marchers as they sought equality and courageous students as they sought an education. This included the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, who protected nine brave students as they desegregated Little Rock Central High School.
Over the course of our history, the struggle for civil rights has had millions of advocates, and thousands of martyrs, among the most respected being Dr. Martin Luther King, whose words motivated a country to action.
As a student, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. King speak in 1967, during what he called “difficult days.” It was a time when some in the civil rights movement were turning away from non-violent action, and when the nation’s cities were witnessing protests and riots.
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.”
Today, with the challenges of recession and division facing our nation we too must reaffirm our belief in a democratic society where we can live together as brothers and sisters.
As we mark Black History Month we commemorate the achievements of the civil rights movement, but also acknowledge the work that remains, as together we strive to uphold the highest standards of democracy.
African-Americans have ascended to some of the highest leadership posts in our nation, yet still face unemployment rates almost double those of whites.
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. Yet students of color still face immense challenges in achieving their dreams.
There has been much progress, and many of us in this room are the beneficiaries of that progress. But too many are still held back by discrimination, their chances for better lives stymied by bigotry.
So we must continue to move forward as a nation, seeking to uphold the highest standards of our democracy.
In his State of the Union Address last month, the President held up the United States military as an example for the nation to look to as we chart our future together. He praised your commitment to the mission above all else, regardless of your race, religion, or background.
The United States military aspires to be an organization where its members are judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin. You serve in one of the most diverse organizations in our society, and you and your leaders are judged by your abilities, work ethic, and dedication.
From sergeants to generals, all are selected on a competitive basis, regardless of race, religion or nationality. Each is able to advance as far as his or her own talents will allow. And each is given the opportunity to do so.
Of course, this equality of opportunity was not won easily or overnight.
The Buffalo Soldiers who called Fort Leavenworth home – and who are honored by the beautiful monument here on post – fought for a nation that still considered them second-class citizens even after many of their brothers fought and died to preserve that very nation.
The Tuskegee Airmen who took to the skies over Europe to fight Nazi oppression returned home to a society that in many places still made them drink from segregated fountains and denied them service in restaurants.
Of course, it was not just African-Americans who proudly wore the uniform of a nation that did not fully appreciate their service upon their return.
The men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team returned from combat in Europe as the most decorated unit in the armed forces. Upon their unit’s activation, President Roosevelt said: “Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race and ancestry.”
Yet as these Japanese-Americans were fighting and dying for America, their government was interning many of their families in camps simply because of their race and ancestry.
These injustices finally began to be rectified and the courage of these heroes honored after the nation saw that patriotism is a virtue shared by Americans of all backgrounds. And after it was made clear that sacrifice is known by all who wear the uniform, as well as those who see their loved ones off to war, no matter the color of their skin.
The United States military led the way when it came to desegregation, with many institutions taking years or even decades to follow in its footsteps.
I’ve mentioned a few times today the need to protect and uphold the “highest standards of democracy.” That phrase comes from President Truman’s 1948 order desegregating the armed forces.
It was an order that established the United States military as a beacon for the rest of American society follow. And it is a beacon that still shines brightly today.
Truman later wrote that “it is the privilege and responsibility of every citizen to make the maximum possible contribution to our national strength.” Each of you – and your families – make that contribution to our national strength every day.
Dr. King once said “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.”
And though he was an advocate of non-violent protest, I have no doubt that the work you do in the service of our nation supports his vision for our nation, as well as the collective vision a world where all are free to live in peace, pursuing their own hopes and dreams.
Your work in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-torn areas of the world is in service to the ideals of the American people, as articulated and exemplified by Dr. King. You have sacrificed the comforts of home for the betterment of others – many of whom you will never know.
And in that sacrifice, you have set an example for a nation that has made great strides in creating society where opportunity is not denied because of race or ethnicity.
Yet we are also a nation that has more steps to take before we will have realized the goals of those who have advocated, and struggled, and sometimes died for the cause of true freedom.
The men and women of the United States military remain in the vanguard of our nation’s ongoing effort to ensure equality of opportunity and freedom from discrimination to each member of our society.
You are all part of a proud tradition – and part of not just black history, but American history.
It is an honor for me to speak with you today, as well as to thank you for your dedication to our country and to equality of opportunity for all, as you uphold the highest standards of our democracy.