JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. -- Growing up in the South, Lt. Gen. Leslie Smith said he felt the impact of the civil rights movement inspired by the late Martin Luther King Jr.
Smith, who currently serves as the Army's 66th inspector general, spoke to Soldiers and civilians at the Spates Community Center here Wednesday to honor King's legacy on the occasion of his 91st birthday. King's message of promoting nonviolent, social change inspired Smith throughout his career.
"Dr. King wasn't in the military, but his service positively impacted our nation, and frankly the world," Smith said. "So what part can we play?"
Smith lauded Soldiers in attendance for accepting the responsibility to defend the nation's Constitution through military service. He also challenged Soldiers and civilians to honor King's legacy through volunteer service with youth and community groups in their local neighborhoods.
"Soldiers can help prevent bullying, hazing, sexual assault and sexual harassment by spreading awareness and taking care of each other," Smith said. "They can also be involved at schools and youth organizations as mentors, tutors or coaches."
Smith, himself, has regularly spoken to cadets and high school students and has served as a mentor to them.
"Every one of us has that responsibility in this just cause," he said. "That means wherever we work, whatever we do, we are called to make a difference. We are called to celebrate, we are called to remember, but more importantly we are called to act -- just like Dr. King acted."
A prominent voice in the civil rights movement, King died on April 4, 1968, from a fatal gunshot wound in Memphis, Tennessee. King holds the honor of being the only non-U.S. president to have a national holiday dedicated in his memory.
King campaigned against social and racial injustice throughout the civil rights movement, including the March on Washington in 1963, which called for an end to racial segregation in public schools and racial discrimination in the workplace.
As a child, Smith said he had a strong support system of family and mentors who helped him and his siblings overcome racial prejudice and injustice in the still-divided South in the 1960s and 1970s. He attended classes with King's youngest children, Bernice and Dexter King, at Frederick Douglass High School on Atlanta's west side.
He said he still periodically keeps in touch with Bernice King, who now serves as a minister and as the CEO of Atlanta's King Center, which sponsors a library and archives dedicated to spreading global nonviolent social change.
Smith said the challenge of spreading King's message to the younger generation of Soldiers can be achieved by celebrating diverse backgrounds and developing an understanding of different upbringings.
A native of Atlanta and Mound Bayou, Mississippi, Smith lost his father in the same year that King passed. He said that his humble beginnings and strong upbringing helped to form a solid and resilient foundation for his future military career. He encourages Soldiers to be proud of their unique backgrounds.
"It is important to understand where we have come from," Smith said. "Unless we understand where we've come from, we won't know where we should go. The differences among us are strengths, not weaknesses. We must encourage the celebration of all our different backgrounds and embrace the strength that comes from our diversity."
This appreciation and respect for others can prove pivotal in future Army operations, as the service engages in more multinational exercises and missions. Military members of allied nations often embed in units across the Army, and Soldiers have the opportunity to promote diversity as a strength.
"This is important for our military," Smith said. "We have to understand and celebrate the backgrounds of other people of different races, ethnicities, customs and traditions so we have a greater appreciation for the people in places we may have to go in the future."