NORFOLK NAVAL BASE, Virginia –
On 18 January 2022, the Joint Forces Staff College (JFSC) held a virtual observance in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the federal holiday in his name.
National Defense University President, Lieutenant General Mike Plehn, USAF introduced our guest speaker, Brigadier General Voris W. McBurnette, USAR, Commandant, Joint Forces Staff College. The observance also included an introduction by JFSC Librarian Jamal Fisher, the playing of Lift Every Voice by J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson, and a recorded poetry reading by National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman.
Full text of Brigadier General Voris McBurnette's speech
Greetings JFSC and the NDU-wide family of colleges. Thank you Lt Gen Plehn for giving JFSC this opportunity to honor an American Icon. Today we honor and celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, accomplishments, and legacy. Dr. King is widely regarded as the pre-eminent civil rights leader in American history and a leading advocate for non-violent resistance to social oppression.
Born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, GA, Martin Luther King Jr. was born as Michael King. His father, after whom he was named, changed his own name to Martin Luther King, Sr. His son was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. as a child. The son of a beloved Atlanta minister who himself was an activist and social reform leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. graduated from Booker T Washington High School, the first public high school for African-Americans in the state of Georgia, at the age of 15 being somewhat of a prodigy, having skipped several grades in both elementary and high school. King then entered Morehouse College, a private, historically black men’s college in Atlanta, Georgia. Here, he continued perfecting his oratorical and writing skills. During his junior year, he was published in the Maroon Tiger – the school’s newspaper, writing “The Purpose of Education.” In his article, he argued “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays influenced King’s thinking about using Christianity as a means to influence change in society.
During his senior year at Morehouse College, King was ordained and appointed associate pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. After graduating from Morehouse College with a degree in sociology in 1948, King studied at Crozer Theological Seminary near Chester, Pennsylvania, a school with a reputation for teaching theology grounded in precepts of social justice. These precepts fostered a deeper commitment in King to the Christian social gospel and sparked his interest in Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance to bring about reform in society.
King excelled as a scholar. He became student body president. During his graduation from Crozer in 1951, Dean Charles Batten praised King as “one of our most outstanding students” and as someone who exhibited “fine preparation, an excellent mind, and a thorough grasp of the material.” King graduated from Crozer with honors as class valedictorian and received the Pearl Plafker award for scholarship.
King began his doctoral studies and research at Boston University that same year, with a special interest in philosophy and ethics. He continued developing his understanding of Mohandas Gandhi’s teachings on pacifism, peaceful resistance, and related theories of social change. At the age of 25, he completed his dissertation, A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, in 1955. During his doctoral studies, King met Coretta Scott, who was then studying opera at the New England Conservatory of Music. King and Scott married in 1953, and later had four children. While working on his dissertation in 1954, King was appointed associate pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on Montgomery, Alabama.
By now, Dr. King was a recognized and accomplished preacher and presenter. His sermons were broadcast on radio, and he was frequently invited to speak at local, regional, and state events. He was selected to lead a new organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association, formed to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks. He became a spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a campaign by the African-American population of Montgomery to desegregate the city’s bus services using peaceful protest. After 381 days of nearly universal participation by citizens of the black community, many of whom had to walk miles to work each day as a result, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in public transportation unconstitutional, an early victory in the campaign for civil rights.
The ensuing years were filled with church service, leadership, social activism…and attempts by opponents of equality and civil rights to harass Dr. King and silence his message. He was arrested 29 times, his home was bombed and fired upon, and dynamite was left on his porch. He was brutally stabbed at a book signing. Supporters of Dr. King’s message had similar experiences: harassed, jailed, beaten. Yet these attacks only served to bring him and his cause greater public attention. Despite the risks, Dr. King continued to speak and write, only now to a national – even international - audience, on social reform, equality, voting rights, and non-violence. Dr. King was one of three founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. This organization, whose motto was “to save the soul of America,” united Black churches behind Dr. King’s non-violent movement for civil rights reform.
During 1963, a pivotal year marked by violence inflicted upon Dr. King’s supporters and his own imprisonment, Dr. King wrote what became known as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King wrote it to respond to a group of clergymen who had suggested social activists take a “wait and see” stance. Dr. King responded with a ten-page letter that acknowledged social change may lead to crisis but argued in favor of nonviolent activism, stating that “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue.” King’s letter was later recognized as an expression of his philosophy and strategy for bringing about social change. Today, it is required reading in universities worldwide.
The summer and fall of 1963 brought more activism, more violence from opponents, and the moment of truth for civil rights in America. The “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” on August 28, 1963 brought over 200,000 activists to the Lincoln Memorial. Organized in less than three months and featuring appearances by famous actors, musicians, and speakers, it is best known for Dr. King’s "I Have a Dream” speech. The event is considered a key turning point for the civil rights movement.
President John F. Kennedy had this to say about the historic event: "We have witnessed today in Washington tens of thousands of Americans, both Negro and White, exercising their right to assemble peaceably and direct the widest possible attention to a great national issue. Efforts to secure equal treatment and equal opportunity for all without regard to race, color, creed, or nationality are neither novel nor difficult to understand. What is different today is the intensified and widespread public awareness of the need to move forward in achieving these objectives—objectives which are older than this nation."
A few weeks later, President Kennedy was assassinated. However, the Office of the President continued to stand behind the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King. President Lyndon Johnson continued to work with Dr. King, Congress, and others to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation, and pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed voter suppression laws against citizens based on their race or color at the state and local levels. These were historic achievements and were recognized worldwide when Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace prize on December 10, 1964.
After the historic events of 1963 through 1965, Dr. King built on his successful advocacy for civil rights reforms by calling for measures to address voting violence, poverty, and income inequality. In addition, he actively campaigned against the Vietnam War. He organized marches, gave speeches, and wrote articles and books. He remained focused on his vision of love and brotherhood and equality, of a better way of life for all. He saw America’s war in Vietnam as a threat to this vision. It wasn’t just the moral damage and human tragedies the Vietnam War inflicted on American society that concerned King. America in the 1960s was marked by widespread social conflict at home. Peaceful demonstrations were often marred by violence. And it was after a protest gone wrong that Dr. King was adamant about having another peaceful rally – to show it could still be done. He stayed true to his faith in nonviolent action, despite calls from some leaders in the Black Power movement that his methods were too timid and social reforms were too slow.
King was also keenly aware of the deep hostilities and resentments many people harbored against civil rights and equality. He delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at an evening rally at the Masonic Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968. In this prescient speech, he foreshadowed his own assassination, but said he feared “no man” because his cause was just and, as it was during the time of Moses, his people might well reach “the promised land” without him. He was shot and killed the very next day.
A powerful influencer, a determined advocate for decency and equality, Dr. King left behind more than books and speeches; more than audio and video clips; more than statues and schools and highways and chapels and libraries and centers bearing his name. He left this reminder that we can be decent and fair: He stated, “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington DC honors Dr. King’s legacy and the struggle for freedom, equality, and justice. Authorized in 1996, the design was approved in 2000. The memorial site opened in 2011 and continues to remind us that Dr. King’s message of peaceful protest for equality, freedom, and justice is as important for America and peace in the world today as it was in 1968, if not more so. - END TEXT