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Col. Charles D. Allen
Military scholar

Col. Charles D. Allen

Colonel Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, Ret.) is the Professor of Cultural Science in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College.

MLK day: African Americans answering the call of military service

Col. Allen delivered this speech on Jan. 14 at the US Army War College and Carlisle Barracks observation of Martin Luther King Day.

What a great day we have been given to serve together!

This is the 27th year since our nation has honored Dr. King with federal holiday on his birthday. You know of his achievements from the many observations that we have celebrated in our military. Many of you have heard Dr. King's speech and have focused on the chorus, "I have a dream." But, there is a short section at the beginning of that speech I want to share with you. This is what I believe inspired the dream, the movement, and the 1963 March on Washington. It is what compelled our nation to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and led to Dr. King's being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

How did this man of talent come to change a society and a nation?

Dr. King was born in Atlanta as a son of a minister. At an early age, he showed a passion and conviction of spirit that led him to the same vocation. He received a doctorate at the age of 26 from Boston University, and was on the path to be just as good a preacher as his father was. Through the course of his early ministry, his talent for oratory and leadership led him to a different path, one that he did not ask nor plan for, but to which he was called.

Today, I would like for us for reflect on those who, like Dr. King, have gone before us in the service of our country. Listen to this passage from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 6 Verse 8. "And I heard the voice of the Lord saying: 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' Then I said, 'Here I am, Send me.'" This has been the venerable reply of many people who have been called to service, and, who in the face of adversity, stood up to be counted in the pursuit of a higher good. Each of us in this room has committed to such service to our nation.

As Dr. King inevitably studied our American history, he would have known that many blacks had answered that call, and served nobly in the fight for freedom and justice. With each gathering like this one here today, we celebrate those selfless heroes AND the tradition of service to our country. In Boston, a brass plaque hangs on a small patch of bricks marking the location of the Boston Massacre of 1770. At that spot, Crispus Attucks, became the first martyr of the American Revolution. He was a black man, a runaway slave, who was at the forefront of America's quest for freedom. When called, he answered "Here I am, Send Me -- I will stand against tyranny and injustice. I will stand for liberty."

During the Civil War, with their freedom at stake, black Militiamen gave the Union forces the ability to defeat those who would oppress an entire race. This is the legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment that was depicted in the movie "Glory." Those great men of our past each answered the call with "Here I am, Send Me--I will fight to end the oppression of my people; I will fight for the right to be free."

After the Civil War, black units were finally included in the Regular Army. Serving in the American West and on the Great Plains, they picked up the unforgettable name of Buffalo Soldiers. Among that group was the first Black cadet to graduate from West Point, LT Henry O. Flipper.

Forty-eight hours ago I was in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and I stood at the base of the beautiful statue that captures the spirit of those Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry. Though it is not common knowledge, these all-black units kept Teddy Roosevelt from losing the Battle of San Juan Hill and helped Brig. Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing pursue Pancho Villa in 1916.

Despite the evidence of heroic actions of black American soldiers, our published U.S. history reflected something to the contrary. Here is one study's conclusion:

As combat troops under modern war conditions, [negroes] never rose to the standard of white units even when well led by white officers. The negro officers were educationally and in character far inferior to the whites, and troops under negro officers were unfit for battle against an aggressive and active enemy.

This was from a 1925 study conducted by the Army War College.

On August 25th, 1941, black Americans were finally given a chance to prove their stuff in the Army Air Corps. The Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group had the mission of escorting Allied bombers. In over 15 thousand sorties, they did not lose one bomber to enemy hostilities. Those black airmen accomplished this astounding feat with sheer skill, purpose of mind, and courage of conviction. They served proudly with the benefit of neither privilege nor courtesy. They answered the call by saying "Here we are, Send us--We will fight against injustice and for the liberty of others in foreign lands." Dr. King would have also known about Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Senior--the professor of Military Science at the Tuskegee Institute, who, in 1940, would become the first African-American to be selected and serve as a general officer.

In 2008, the U.S. Military celebrated a Diamond Anniversary--60 years since President Harry S. Truman signed the Executive Orders for the integration of the Armed Forces. This was one victory in our nation's internal battle against racism and stereotypes. We know that war is not yet won. As Dr. King once said: "If there is injustice for one, there is injustice for all."

We know well the names of black Soldier-leaders of the past who answered their personal calls in face of prejudice--Generals Chappie James and Ben O. Davis, Jr. were proud Tuskegee Airmen, as well as Vietnam-era Army Generals like Julius Becton, Roscoe Robinson, and Medal of Honor Winner Charles Rogers who carried the flag of those warriors from yesteryear.

These soldiers are among those African-Americans that Dr. King would have studied and watched. He would have noted their ability and talent, but that the opportunity to realize their potential was something that was not available to all black Americans. Hence, Dr. King continued his speech with this paragraph:

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in-so-far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Did Dr. King make a difference when he answered the call by not only saying "Here am I, Send me," but by also taking the risk of leadership?

The difference he made in my own life is clear. I grew up in Cleveland Ohio in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and experienced the riots in the summers of 1966 and 1968. When our nation was in turmoil, my family looked to Dr. King for spiritual direction, but more importantly, for hope.

I was a paperboy and the morning of April 5th, 1968, I delivered the Cleveland Plain Dealer, whose headline announced the assassination of Dr. King. While a bullet silenced the messenger, we know that it could not kill his message.

That following spring of 1969, I took a middle school trip from Cleveland to Atlanta to visit the Dr. King Center and gravesite. As a senior, I was selected to receive the first Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. award from Shaw High School.

In the fall of 1972, I was contacted by a West Point liaison officer who was recruiting young men of color to join the officer ranks of our Army. My fellow military academy cadets and classmates were Cadets Dorian Anderson (Cdr, JTF-6; Human Resources Command), Lloyd Austin (Cdr, 10 Mtn Div; 18th ABN Corps), Ron Johnson (Deputy Chief, Army Corps of Engineers during Hurricane Katrina); and Tom Bostick (recently nominated for LTG to be the Army G-1).

During those four years at West Point, I met officers of proven ability and great promise. Captain Larry Ellis was a boxing instructor and would go on to command 1ST Armored Div and US Forces Command. Capt Larry Jordan was a history instructor; LTG Jordan became The Inspector General of the Army and my boss as the Deputy Commanding General, US Army Europe. And an Asian American, Major Eric Shinseki, taught English and would be a squadron commander supported by then-Capt Allen in Schweinfurt, Germany. General Shinseki would become Commander, US Army Europe and then later the Army Chief of Staff.

Within this collection of cadets and officers, our paths crossed several times over my 30-year career. Our opportunity to serve was directly attributable to the call that Dr. King answered. His response and actions enabled and inspired others to act for something beyond self and in the service of others. It is clear that Dr. King did make a difference in my life and the lives of other black service members.

He also made a difference in our nation when we consider names like Colin Powell, Condeleeza Rice, and Barack Obama. Each of those names brings to mind first intellect, talent, and character, then race. In response to a question asked of me during the recent presidential candidate nomination process, I told a close friend I did not think that America was ready to elect a woman or a black man as president. I was wrong.

During the campaign of 2008, Barack Obama was not defeated nor was he elected because of the color of his skin. Dr. King might nod his head and smile and offer that Senator Obama was judged on the content of his character and his ability to convey to the American people, "Here I am, Send me; I can lead this nation. I believe that change is possible for the betterment of all Americans."

In closing, I think that Dr. King would have us to look around and notice where there are still inequities--in education, in employment, in economic conditions and in health care. In that famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial he declared to us:

I say to you today my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

He would now ask what are we doing to make a difference, to make his dream--NO! our dream come true. Dr. King would press us and challenge us to act.

Can you hear the call for service, above the noise of the world?

Over the past twenty years since the end of the Cold War, our Army has answered many calls of "Whom shall I send?" As an artillery lieutenant, I supported the 2nd Brigade of 3rd Infantry Division known as the "Send Me" Brigade. Our Army has conducted many deployments that you have been a part of in your career. You have deployed in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Restore Hope in Somalia, Restore Democracy in Haiti, and as part of the missions in Bosnia and in Kosovo. The nations of the former Yugoslavia were experiencing the same sorts of atrocities that drove the United States to fight in World War II--violations of the basic human rights of life and liberty.

We are still engaged in two prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Proudly, American efforts and U.S. military action have brought relief to many people of those regions. Today, as we read the papers and watch evening news programs, we know another situation has arisen in Haiti and that a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division will be on the ground in Haiti shortly. On any given day, our military may be called by our nation to Go and Serve in another land.

How do we know if that call is just?

Remember the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said: "Blessed are the peace makers, for they will be called Sons of God."

Do we hear this call of "whom shall I send?" in our local community? Listen. You have the opportunity to serve as role models within our units and within this community. You are role models to our fellow service members, to your spouses and to our children. You are members of noble callings: military, civic leaders, teachers, and parents. You can answer this call by instilling values and demonstrating three very simple ways to live: Do the right thing, respect others, and do your best.

When called, What is your answer? Whom will you serve?

I will close with a passage from the Book of Joshua Chapter 24 Verse 15: "Choose for yourself this day whom you will serve."

By Col. Charles D. Allen

 |  January 17, 2010; 6:12 AM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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This passage of Isaiah is painted beautifully in a painting that is placed today in the main entrance -- the river entrance of the Pentagon. It is of a military family kneeling in prayer at the altar of a church as they seem to be praying "send me". The inscription of Isaiah 6:8 is written at the bottom. This painting deeply moves me every time I walk under it. Col Allen -- your words here also move me. Thank you, sir.

Lt Col Hildebrandt, USAF

Posted by: randysr | January 18, 2010 7:51 PM
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The theme is a noble one indeed - "Here am I, send me." This theme cuts across all cultural divides and goes to the root of every injustice in our nation...Every one of us has a passion that demands "Here am I, send me."

Passions that come to mind are equal rights for homosexuals, civil rights for prisoners, resistance to religious bullying, fights against ignorance and the call to resist armed aggression when politically contrived...

We are a nation with great heart that is being dulled by the cult of individualism and its offspring, self-protectionism...

Thank you for the good words, despite the fact that service in our military is something quite removed from "Here I am, send me."

Stan Moody

Posted by: StanHunts | January 18, 2010 7:26 PM
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He stood up and was counted. The only ther one to do that in my lifetime was Harry Truman. Congress has become mealy-mouthed and I am ashamed of them. I have just gotten thru reading what the PM of Australia has said and he is standing up and being counted. He's telling the people that if they don't like the way Australia believes, then leave.

Posted by: janwhite30 | January 18, 2010 4:01 PM
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I was born well after Dr. King was killed, but all I can see hustlers who hijack his name to push for free-money for themselves or whatever group they represent, all in the name of "economic justice." And then they say "don't deny me or I'll call you a racist!!"

Posted by: pgr88 | January 18, 2010 2:58 PM
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Colonel Allen ,thank you for that historical, moving and inspirational article. Hopefully it will move the thoughts of our fellow citizens to continue pushing for equal justice for all.
Our diversity is our great strength.

I was fortunate in my lifetime to personally speak one on one with Dr. King. I was a young Louisville,KY police officer during the mid to late 1960's.

During the "open housing " marches in Louisville as a uniformed police officer I was in the street marching along with the group. Born and raised in the south I had never before seen the intense level of hatred and racism expressed aganist Dr. King and the marchers.

People were cursing, using the "N" word, throwing trash, cans and bottles. One of my high school teachers, a catholic priest walking with the marchers related to me, "this hatred has always been here, we are just bringing it to surfice and it must be replaced by justice". Brick and rocks were flying through the air striking men,women and children. At the appointed spot the marchers sat down in the street and were arrested.

The next day or so I was in the street awaiting the arrival of Dr. King and the marchers. It was an extremely hot and humid night in the south end of Louiville. Dr. King exited his vehicle and extended his hand and said'How are you this evening and we exchanged greeting comments.

I was really taken back by his total calmness in the situation ,and his power or firmness and conviction . I thought that there were more white people yelling and screaming than the previous march. Several members of the crowd were yelling at us "Cop,"N" lovers". Bricks,rocks,sticks and words were relentlessly hailed at the marchers. Again at the appointed spot all were arrested when they sat down. Dr. King ,and all marchers submitted peacefully.

Several days later I again saw Dr. King on the steps of city hall. He remembered me and extended a greeting. During this turblent period I met and had conversation with Hosea Williams, A. D. Williams King and Jesse Jackson.

I am white and I saw the real hatred and discrimination aganist fellow Americans for one reason-they had dark skin.

The racism continues today. The terrible attacks by by certain radio and tv shows is just plain white on black racism.

I always tell people,watch out you may be surprised "God is probably taller than he looks and he is black and gay."

Great Country America.

Posted by: COWENS99 | January 18, 2010 2:51 PM
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For clarification, those who I listed from West Point were there during my four years as a cadet. Anderson and Austin were a seniors during my freshman year. I failed to list my classmate Luis Caldera who served as the 17th Secretary of the Army. The officers were members of the faculty and staff.

Posted by: charlesdallen | January 18, 2010 2:09 PM
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I served under your West Point classmate, Dorian Anderson when he led an airborne rifle company at Ft Bragg in the early 80's. He was hands down the finest company commander I ever saw..in fact..we called him CPT "America"!

Posted by: mark0004 | January 18, 2010 11:38 AM
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Ask any school kid who is Martin Luther King and they can answer the question. But, can those same school children name one of our founding fathers?

MLK is given his own day of celebration, Martin Luther King Day.

We use to celebrate the birthdays of our first President, Washington, and our sixteenth President, Lincoln.

No longer.

We now have a generic Presidents Day.

Were Washington's and Lincoln's contribution less than MLK's?

The question is absurd, but that is exactly the message communicated to the next generation.

MLK has been made into a god.

He was a man who led a movement for good. He is to be applauded for his achievement.

Just as we do not bow down and worship Washington or Adams or Jefferson or Lincoln, who made significant contributions to our nation, neither should Americans bow down and worship Martin Luther King. Nor should we immortalize his contributions above those of our founding fathers or of Lincoln who signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Posted by: ladyliberty1 | January 17, 2010 10:12 PM
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I don't know where to begin to address such misinformation. Sir, Crispus Attucks and his cohorts were drunk thugs who left a tavern to taunt and incite trouble against a handfull of British soldiers. Please read John Adams account, as he was the soldiers' attorney at trial. As to your rference of Vietnam era generals, I refer you to MLK's 1967 speech, "Beyond Vietnam", in which he branded this country's use of power; Military, CIA, etc. as the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today". MLK believed in non-violence! I think that Dr. King would have repudiated Powell and Rice for their lies and duplicity concerning Iraq! Finally, from Isaiah 2:4, "they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks". The Sermon on the Mount also contains the admonitions to turn the other cheek and to love thy neighbor! MLK and Jesus taught non-violence.

Posted by: jjgriffin1 | January 17, 2010 6:37 PM
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Good grief Sir, I retired after 26 years and now you make me want to come back! Wonderful speech. Thank you.

Posted by: voldenuit123 | January 17, 2010 11:52 AM
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I am grateful for the example Dr King set, and when I need guidance, I think of his words and his actions.

We were, and are, blessed as a nation to have had his leadership.

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | January 17, 2010 8:38 AM
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We continue to edge closer every year to the deification of someone whose contributions are regarded as supreme and immune from challenge and whose faults are also immune from discussion and therefore nonexistent.

Posted by: Freethinker2 | January 17, 2010 8:17 AM
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Col. Allen --
What a wonderful tribute to Dr. King and to the importance his work played in your own life and career. I have also always appreciated the part of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech that you quote, although we still struggle as a nation to keep the bank of justice solvent and the great vaults of opportunity sufficiently funded. Thank you for reminding us so eloquently of our own obligation on that "promissory note" of character, equal opportunity, and citizenship.

Posted by: rsbash | January 17, 2010 8:09 AM
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