FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (Feb. 16, 2012) -- The University of Kansas' chancellor said she is a beneficiary of the progress our nation has made toward equal opportunity -- of which the U.S. military has been a leader.

"The United States military strives to be an organization where its numbers are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin," said Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. "You serve in one of the most diverse organizations in our society and you and your leaders are judged by your ability to work, ethics and dedication."

Gray-Little spoke to members of the Fort Leavenworth community at a Black History Month luncheon Feb. 9 at the Frontier Conference Center. The luncheon, sponsored by Combined Arms Center-Training, was one of the better-attended cultural observance luncheons, with about 180 tickets sold and about 50 who attended solely to hear the speaker.

Col. Pat White, CAC-T deputy commander, said Fort Leavenworth was pleased to have the KU leader to address the theme of Black History Month.

"I really can't think of many leaders who are more qualified to address that theme than Chancellor Gray-Little," White said. "She's written extensively about women, race and diversity. She is the first woman and the first African-American to lead the University of Kansas."

Gray-Little has a background in psychology and came to Kansas from North Carolina. Gray-Little said she was honored to be among active-duty Soldiers. KU has several programs for active-duty Soldiers, including master's degree programs in supply chain management and global interagency studies that are taught at Fort Leavenworth. The Wounded Warrior Education Initiative is a joint program by KU and the Army that pays wounded service members to receive educational degrees at KU so they can become teachers and mentors for the military.

Gray-Little detailed the history of diversity in the United States military, from the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Leavenworth to members of the U.S. military helping protect those fighting for civil rights. It was the Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division who protected students as Little Rock Central High School underwent forced desegregation under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, Gray-Little said.

"It's an organization that strives to value merit above all else in choosing its leaders," she said. "And the expression of that idea is important when we think about change."

The nation's ability to pair ability and accomplishments over race led to Colin Powell's rise to Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It also led to the nation's first black president, Barack Obama.

Gray-Little said she had the opportunity to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in 1967. He talked about the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the challenges of calling for a nonviolent protest for change.

"Dr. King continued his call for reaffirming our belief in building a democratic society in which blacks and whites can live together as brothers and sisters, where we will all come to see that immigration is not the problem but an opportunity to participate in the 'beauty of diversity,"' she said.

Members of the military fought for their nation even when they came home to a segregated nation.
"The Buffalo Soldiers who called Fort Leavenworth home and who are honored by the monument here and who are recognized today fought for a nation that still considered them second-class citizens even after many of their brothers fought and died to preserve that nation," she said.

The Tuskagee Airmen took to the skies to fight Nazi oppression, but came back to the United States where they were still required to drink at segregated drinking fountain and denied access to all-white restaurants.

It wasn't only black service members who faced racism, Gray-Little said.

"The 442nd Regimental Combat Team returned from combat in Europe as the most decorated unit in the armed forces," Gray-Little said. "Upon their unit's activation, President Roosevelt said, 'Americanism is not and never was a matter of race and ancestry,' yet as these Japanese-Americans were fighting and dying for America, they were interning many of their families in camps simply because of their race and ancestry."

The injustices began to be rectified after the country realized the sacrifices made not only by service members, but also their families, she said.

"The United States military has led the way when it came to desegregation … many other institutions taking years or even decades to follow," Gray-Little said.