FORT RILEY, Kan. -- Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Colvin Bennett Sr. looked at the past and toward the future as he gave the keynote address at the African-American Black History Month Observance Feb. 15 at Riley's Conference Center.

With the goal of recognizing the strides made toward equality and those yet needed, Bennett provided some examples from history. He spoke about Benjamin Banneker, who, in 1791, wrote a letter to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson asking for relief for the plight of enslaved African-Americans.

Banneker, an astronomer and mathematician, enclosed an almanac. Jefferson was impressed, yet unable to help, Bennett said.

Slavery was not illegal for another 75 years, until 1865, Bennett said. In 1951, the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment was ordered disbanded in favor of integration. Ironically, fears surrounding integration were already proven unfounded, Bennett said, since African Americans had fought in segregated and integrated units since 1675.

The point is that change may not happen quickly, but it happens, Bennett said.

"And, the reason they changed was that each day, people of goodwill of all races, faiths and nationalities, decided that change must come … they did so with small, seemingly insignificant actions," he said. "The key was that the actions were performed each day."

After acknowledging what those of past generations have given, Bennett said young people, especially African-Americans, have the duty to pick up the mantle and move forward.

"It is every generation's responsibility to leave the country just a little bit better," he said. "We should be proud of our country's and our Army's commitment to equality."

Bennett also said the journey toward equality is not complete. He asked the audience to continue on the path toward equality.

Following his presentation, Bennett was presented a certificate of appreciation by Brig. Gen. Donald MacWillie, 1st Infantry Division deputy commanding general for support.

"Remember the command sergeant major's words," MacWillie said. "It took the actions of those who came before us. Can you imagine how hard it was to say, 'I'm not going to sit on the back of the bus?' 'At the back of the diner?' or 'I want to fly a P-51 Mustang?' I am proud of where we are to day, but, more importantly, of where we are going tomorrow."

Bennett's passion for his cause and his knowledge of those who came before us was admirable, said audience member Sherry Finger, Junction City.

Heather Drake, military spouse, said she also was moved by Bennett's presentation.

"It was awesome. Thank you for your uplifting and positive message," Drake said to Bennett.

"We do have an ugly past, but we also have a bright future," Bennett said. "It is good to celebrate our past and how far we've come."