Being Leaders of "Change"
February 8, 2013
President Abraham Lincoln instituted the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which legally freed African Americans from slavery during the Civil War. But their plight for equality continued to be a highly contentious issue in America for many years to come.
In 1963, the civil rights movement peaked with the March on Washington and the dictation of what is arguably the most famous speech in our nation's history, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calling for equality and an end to racism.
Progress had been tumultuous in those 100 years, and since King's speech, Americans have fought hard to uphold moral obligations among each other--regardless of race or gender.
The theme for 2013's Black History Month--"At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation 1863 and the March on Washington 1963"--addresses directly with our nation's storied past, amazing present and its colorful future.
"Our military oftentimes is a leader of change," said Brig. Gen. Ronald F Lewis, deputy commanding general for support, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). "A demonstrator of change across our society."
In our country's early wars, African Americans in the military faced tough battles against racism and segregation in garrison and oftentimes fought on the front lines in intense battles.
Lewis, a Chicago, Ill., native who has spent more than 25 years in the Army, formerly commanded the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, from July 2007 to March 2010.
He deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and led the 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 4th Aviation Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, during a deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Lewis said in the past barriers were broken particularly through service in the military.
One example was the first aviation units of color, known as the Tuskegee Airmen. They flew and fought honorably during World War II, Lewis said.
These difficult times led to the establishment of Executive Order 9981 by President Harry Truman in 1948. The order called for the equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the military.
"Opportunities were there to be able to do what I, personally, like a lot: serving as an officer in our military," said Lewis, who graduated the U.S. Military Academy with a degree in mechanical engineering. "There are days in our past when those opportunities might not have been there, but I believe they exist today."
When Soldiers see him, Lewis said they should see someone who grew up in Chicago and, like many American families, had hard-working parents who instilled great values in him and his siblings.
"Not just black Soldiers--American Soldiers should see that if you work hard, study hard, put in the effort and meet the standards, you can succeed," he said. "There are no ceilings. …when you work hard and take the hard jobs, you get ahead. That's an American story. That's not an African American story."
In January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a rule change to allow women to join combat arms units, which shows progress in equality is still being made in the military. Lewis said Diversity builds an understanding amongst Soldiers inside of our military; that they will be able to attain and execute the duties associated with the job--regardless of their race or gender, he said.
Diversity makes the nation what it is, he added, adding that Soldiers should be able to look out across their formation, and it should resemble a snapshot of the America's civilian population.
"That's what democracy is all about," Lewis said. "That's what America is all about, and those are the principles we defend."