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Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates delivers opening remarks at the Pentagon's Jan. 14, 2010, observance of the legacy of human-rights advocate and Nobel Peace-prize recipient Martin Luther King Jr.

WASHINGTON (Jan. 14, 2010) -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today challenged the Defense Department and all Americans to honor Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy during a Pentagon observance in advance of the Jan. 18 holiday that marks the civil rights leader's birth.

"Remember and honor the great example Dr. King was," Gates said to an audience of defense employees and military members at the Pentagon's 25th annual observance of King's life and work. "Celebrate all that we have accomplished together. ... Keep working toward Dr. King's dreams with all our might."

King spent his life advocating for equality and eventually became a world figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The Baptist minister led peaceful demonstrations and marches throughout the country and gave thousands of memorable speeches until his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.

The path of service and equality led by King paved way for desegregation and better opportunities, not just for African Americans, but for all citizens. He sought a society "founded and fueled on equality, justice, dignity, freedom and strength that can come only from being a truly united country," Gates said.

The secretary noted that King's efforts continue to break down barriers even today. In the past two years, the nation has celebrated 60 years of desegregation in the armed forces and witnessed the election of the first black U.S. president.

Gates cited prominent African-American military officers as examples of the opportunities King and the civil rights movement provided. He noted Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, commander of U.S. Africa Command; Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, director of the Joint Staff; and Air Force Maj. Gen. Darren W. McDew, vice director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Staff, for their examples.

"These officers represent the very best our nation has to offer, and I'm truly thankful that they chose to serve and defend our country," Gates said. The men and women who serve throughout the Defense Department are "ordinary Americans from all walks of life and backgrounds, [and] have put themselves in harm's way ... to confront those who would attack the ideals that Dr. King espoused."

Their sacrifices have been made willingly on behalf of all Americans and speak volumes to their character and King's work, Gates said.

Still, the secretary said, it's important to continue furthering King's principles and what he ultimately died trying to preserve.

"Progress is neither automatic nor inevitable," Gates said, quoting King. "Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle."

The Martin Luther King federal holiday was signed into law in 1983 and was first observed in 1986. The holiday is observed on the third Monday in January each year, around the time of King's birthday, Jan. 15.

Page last updated Fri January 15th, 2010 at 10:30