FORT RILEY, Kansas -- Hundreds of Soldiers and distinguished visitors from the Flint Hills region filled every seat of Barlow Theater during "African Americans in a Time of War," a Black History Month observance held Feb. 21.
The 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, hosted the event, which featured retired Command Sgt. Maj. Curtis Shanklin as the guest speaker in addition to live music and a free lunch.
"It's a wonderful time to step back and recognize the many great gifts that African Americans have brought to our nation," Shanklin said, discussing the importance of Black History Month.
Shanklin, born in Mt. Hebron, Alabama, enlisted in the Army on Aug. 10, 1978, as an infantryman and rose to the uppermost limits of enlisted service before retiring at Fort Riley and pursuing a second career as an Army civilian in the 1st Inf. Div.'s operations shop.
"I want you to take time to reflect on some names with me for a moment," Shanklin said, listing Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. "How different would our country be without these leaders and the myriad of others who fought for civil rights? These people have helped us learn what strength is, what perseverance is. They broke down the barriers and stood against injustice and helped us pull together as a nation to overcome our darkest days. These leaders and so many others have helped us build toward a greater nation where the people are judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin."
Shanklin spoke at length about the cultural impact African Americans have had on the American zeitgeist of the last century. He listed famous musicians, athletes and politicians that have helped shape modern culture in the United States and begged the question of where music, sports and politics would be without them.
"African Americans have made numerous impacts in our everyday areas of American life," Shanklin said. "What makes this so amazing is that not so long ago, African Americans were being excluded from so many aspects of American life. For the young people here, I know it seems like ancient history, but for those of us with a few years on us, many of us have seen how much life has changed for the African American in the past few decades."
The retired sergeant major dispelled the idea that the civil rights era was a far-gone time.
"It hasn't been an easy struggle; we don't have to go all the way back to the history of slavery to see the effects of institutional racism in our country," he said. "You can go back to events that have happened in our lifetime for many people here."
Shanklin went on to reference landmark cases such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the numerous civil rights acts of the 1960s as milestones that corresponded to the achievements and challenges of the civil rights movement.
"People kept on finding ways to try to keep the status quo going," Shanklin said. "Fortunately, other people kept fighting to beat back the injustice, to beat back the segregation and discrimination perpetrated on the black community, their struggle continues today."
Shanklin's tone remained optimistic as his speech culminated in referencing notable African Americans who have served and led the "Big Red One" throughout the division's history.
"That is a part of why we are gathered here today to celebrate black history," he said. "We honor those who came before us -- we celebrate how far we have come as a society. But we also honor those who continue to struggle today, for the struggle is still far from over."
Shanklin closed his remarks with a challenge to the audience.
"Listen with the kindness of your heart and not anger," Shanklin said. "If we listen to each other, if we treat each other with respect, we can find ways to overcome our modern day problems together.
Maj. Gen. Joseph M. Martin, 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley commanding general, followed Shanklin, thanking him for his speech and giving him a wooden "Big Red One" to mark the occasion.
Shanklin "has been a Soldier for a long time; he is a Soldier for life and an integral part of this community, the division staff and greater Fort Riley," Martin said. "I think he did a fantastic job."