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Martin Luther King’s Birthday

January 20, 2020

Museum of Military History is closed on Monday



One of the greatest American civil rights leaders of the 20th century, Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. It’s a date honored nationwide on the third Monday in January. He was one of the most important figures in American civil rights history. The celebration of Dr. King’s birthday has been sadly marked by some of the discrimination he fought so hard against. King’s birthday was not officially honored in all 50 states until the year 2000. Prior to that, some states combined his birthday in ways that would be quite controversial and unacceptable today.

What The Military Owes Dr. King

The military has a unique responsibility to observe this particular holiday. It was a slow and painful evolution from the segregated and unwelcoming environment that non-white troops had to endure as early as the Civil War.

U.S. military history is rife with examples of discrimination and retaliation against non-white soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. One of the most shameful and notable examples is the military’s treatment of the first African-American flying unit, the Tuskegee Airmen.

These members of the military maintained, flew, and fought alongside their white counterparts in World War Two. This unit escorted bombers over Italy for well over 1,500 flying missions with more than 160 confirmed Nazi aircraft kills. But they were still held at arm’s length as they were housed in segregated barracks, given substandard housing, received hazing, etc.

In 1945, a group of Tuskegee Airmen were denied entry to a military club on the basis of their skin color. They entered anyway and more than 100 of the Tuskegee Airmen were subject to courts-martial for “mutiny.” These airmen received legal help from a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, later to make his name as a Supreme Court Justice.

While some may argue that such incidents were a product of their times, the U.S. military still bears these incidents as part of its legacy. The fact that in modern times we find Department of Defense support of Dr. King and his work is an important step away from the unfortunate mistakes and poor judgment of past decades.

How The Military Honors Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birthday

There are many ways that individual military commands, bases, and individual units recognize the accomplishments of Doctor King on the official Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday observance. The U.S. Army’s 2018 Stand-To! Blog post announced a slogan that sums up the military’s approach to this national holiday.

The 2018 Army theme was called “Remember! Celebrate! Act! A Day On, Not a Day Off.” The Army urges all in uniform to “remember Dr. King’s remarkable life and to rededicate ourselves to his principles of unity and equality” according to the Stand-To! Blog post from that time.

Remembrance activities may include awareness campaigns at the command or unit level. The Department of Defense circulates newsletters, blog posts, and ad media recognizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s accomplishments and legacy.

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