Remember! Celebrate! Act! A Day On, Not A Day Off

On January 18, 2021, the Department of Defense will join the nation in celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King (MLK), Jr. Day. Largely influential in the American Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King was a major advocate of non-violent activism in the struggle for the end of racial discrimination under United States law and equal social opportunities for all.

The 2021 theme, “Remember! Celebrate! Act! A Day On, Not A Day Off!” commemorates, honors and celebrates Dr. King’s legacy and his vision for equality for all. We are encouraged to perform acts of service and to reflect on the principles of our nation – that all people are created equal, regardless of color, gender, or creed, and we are equal members of the human family. We should continue to work together in an effort to achieve our nation’s goal of creating a more perfect union.

As our nation reflects on this MLK Day of Service, it is important to acknowledge how Dr. King’s message reverberated to African American Service members and veterans during the Civil Rights era. African American soldiers experienced inherent racial bias in the draft, discriminatory treatment in the armed forces, and institutional racism in all branches of the Services. It was a slow and painful evolution to a non-segregated and welcoming military environment. Soldiers that returned from World War II and the Korean War lent their expertise to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement based on their experience.

On June 2, 1964, Dr. King and the world witnessed one of the crowning legislative achievements of the Civil Rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin. Dr. King was instrumental in the signing of the Act which has led to equal opportunities such as women and people of color becoming high ranking officers in the military, members of Congress, business owners, pilots in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration missions, President and Vice-President of the United States.

I encourage all of you to find a worthy cause and make Dr. King’s Day of Observance an opportunity for service. Make it a day on, not a day off. The greatest way to honor Dr. King’s vision for an equal and just nation is to reach out to fellow citizens and serve.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded the world that, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

He challenged Americans to live up to the ideals in our founding documents that we are all created equal, endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Signed into law in January 1983, the King Holiday is a day when the Nation pauses to remember Dr. King’s life and work.

In 1994, Congress designated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as the first and only federal holiday observed as a national day of service, and charged the Corporation for National and Community Service with leading this national effort.

Federal, state, and local leaders join citizens in honoring Dr. King through service projects addressing pressing community needs—“A Day On, Not A Day Off.”

At the Department of Defense, we are committed to honoring Dr. King’s work by recognizing the human dignity in all of the people we serve.

It also means, ensuring that those who serve are judged not based on who they are or where they come from, but rather what they have to offer to help defend this country.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s less than thirteen years of nonviolent leadership ended tragically on April 4th, 1968, when he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

His words and actions changed a nation and resonate to this day.

As we remember Dr. King on his birthday, let’s recommit ourselves to the standard he set—inclusiveness, equality and acts of service, and continue to rise together as a nation to the challenges that remain.