By Michelle SchneiderJanuary 24, 2020
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday that gives many employees and students across the nation a free day of leisure, often appreciated without much thought for its origin. The annual MLK day observance on Jan. 15 at the West Point Club goes beyond the name and face of the civil rights movement to broaden awareness of the personal sacrifices that social justice activists made.
Lt. Col. Winston Williams, assistant professor in the law department at the U.S. Military Academy, was invited to attend the MLK day observance luncheon as the guest speaker. He began his speech by sharing that each year he reads Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter he wrote from the Birmingham jail and said he was captivated by the circumstances that led him to write it.
"Dr. King and many others committed their lives to the cause of freedom and equality. Look at Dr. King's example from the Civil Rights Movement," Williams said. "He's there in the Birmingham jail by himself and was being criticized for doing the right thing and was in a lonely place. But what got him through was his character. He was fit for the task at hand and that journey.
"Having to choose the harder right over the easier wrong when we're saddled with those types of decisions can feel like a lonely place," Williams added. "We must have strong character to get through that place. Dr. King had it in the form of moral and religious beliefs, and we have it in the form of Army values."
Williams also shared that the commitment toward making the dream of equality a reality started with a few people like King, but eventually gained the commitment of a nation. He said that because of their personal sacrifices, freedom and equality are integral parts of our way of life and parts of the Constitution that Soldiers support and defend.
From Williams' perspective as a law scholar, he said he was particularly interested in the injustice many people faced during that time, recognizing how social inequality was unconstitutional and quoting that justice too long delayed is justice denied.
Eventually, civil rights cases made their way to the Supreme Court which led to major social changes.
"Tragically, Dr. King was assassinated almost a year before the courts' rule. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of many civil rights activists who were denied freedom and equality during their time so that future generations could have it," Williams said. "They broke the law, so we do not have to and made sacrifices so that we could have the rights that we have today. While he is one of many who made sacrifices, Dr. King became the personification, the face of the civil rights movement. But he did so reluctantly."
Although King is an exemplary leader of character, Williams shared that other men and women were instrumental to the movement. He said that meeting Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a pioneer of the civil rights movement who the Birmingham airport is named after, was an unforgettable memory.
"One of the biggest events of my life was the opportunity I had about 16 years ago to meet Rev. Shuttlesworth. He had some amazing stories about the civil rights movement, and if you read his biography and what he did in Birmingham you will be amazed also," Williams said.
Shuttlesworth preached about equality. People who opposed him threw dynamite on his porch that exploded right below his bedroom window. He and his wife survived, but the church he preached at was also bombed multiple times.
Williams said Shuttlesworth's stories demonstrate a heroic sacrifice of comfort and ease which is the definition of what a committed life means.
West Point Equal Opportunity Advisor Master Sgt. Michael Holmberg helped coordinate the observance by finding a guest speaker for the luncheon. He said the event was not mandatory for the cadets to attend, but over 250 people were present.
"I think it's important for leadership at all levels to come to these observances and talk about what was presented after," Holmberg said. "There needs to be a dialogue between leadership and subordinates that has nothing to do with their operations so it can make us more human and build a relationship outside the scope of duties."
Class of 2020 Cadet Grace Blackwell is the Respect Captain of all 36 companies within the academy. She monitors her peers' behavior and deals with issues surrounding respect within the corps.
For the event, she served as the cadet touch point for coordinating the narrator and gift givers. She said the luncheons create a community at West Point that celebrates diversity and creates inclusion.
"I think it's extremely important not just for the demographic who the particular observance represents, but for everyone to be a participant in that event. The luncheons draw members from the corps, the staff, faculty and even the West Point community to hear different experiences and points of view and accept those into their own view of the world," Blackwell said.
"The Army itself is such a diverse institution, and we need everyone to be on board to foster trust between people regardless of their race, sex, religion or anything like that. I think these luncheons do a really great job at allowing cadets to practice this skill and become more aware."