King called upon Americans “many times to strive together and to fight together and to do their duty in the long struggle for equality and civil rights,” Mattis said at a Pentagon ceremony honoring King.
“In our memories and our hearts and certainly by keeping his memory alive, he still stands for something that we’re all very proud of,” he said.
The defense secretary said it was appropriate for his first large event at the Pentagon to be an event honoring King.
“Our armed forces are stronger today because of the perseverance of Dr. King and so many others in this country who have fought for civil rights and equality for all,” he said.
Military Example of Unity, Strength
Mattis, who enlisted in the Reserve in 1969 and retired as a general in 2013, said he is equally proud of the Defense Department and its actions on civil rights and equality.
“In our nation’s history, our military has often served as an example to the American people of unity and strength, of how a diverse group of people can be motivated even under austere or grim conditions of the battlefield to come together as equals,” he said.
In November 1805, Army officers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led a special unit — the Corps of Discovery — that included a slave named York and a Native American woman named Sacagawea, Mattis noted.
Facing a perilous situation in extreme winter conditions, the unit had to decide whether to cross the Columbia River. For the first time in the history of the republic, a black man, a Native American, white men and a woman all voted as equals, Mattis said.
They voted to cross the river and survived the winter, he noted.
Strive Together, Fight Together
Whether uniformed or civilian, members of the Defense Department know the “co-equal commitment” across the department, Mattis said. “It’s a mission that calls for all hands to strive together and to fight together, and to look out for one another.”
One example, Mattis noted, was the Defense Department first observed Martin Luther King Day in 1985, a year before it became a federal holiday.
“Military service in America is a touchstone for American patriots of all races, genders, creeds,” he said.
“The men and women of the Department of Defense — military and civilian — reflect the diverse and selfless character of our national defense and have done so long before our nation had reached the level it has reached today in terms of civil rights,” Mattis said.
Other speakers at today’s event included DoD’s director of administration and management Michael Rhodes and Air Force Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris, assistant vice chief of staff and director of the Air Staff.
Upholding Values, Ideals of King
Harris stressed the importance of fostering change and living up to the values and ideals of King. Environments of diversity and inclusion are national security imperatives and true force multipliers, she explained.
Service, she said, is inherent in the character of military members and all Americans.
“Dr. King believed in a nation of freedom and justice for all, and encouraged all citizens to live up to the purpose of potential of America to make this country a better place to live,” she said.
“I say there’s rarely a better way that we can do this then through daily service to others,” she said.
(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter: @FerdinandoDoD)