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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration
Washington, DC
January 17, 2013

Good afternoon, everyone! Thank you for joining us as we observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and celebrate his remarkable life.

Will Gunn, thank you for that kind introduction. Let me also thank Cynthia Leach and the Reverend Perdita Johnson-Abercrombie for inspiring us with our National Anthem and invoking today's blessing.

Let me further acknowledge:

  • Our special guest speaker: journalist, author, and daughter of a Marine, Patrice Gaines. Patrice, thank you for sharing today with us;
  • Deputy Secretary Scott Gould, Chief of Staff John Gingrich, other members of our superb VA leadership team;
  • Sabrina Clark, Tynnetta Lee, and all the folks in HR who helped to organize today's observance;
  • Other distinguished guests, VA colleagues, ladies and gentlemen:

Celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—his faith, his courage, his humanity—is a time for one's own self reflection. This year, Dr. King's birthday is the convergence of three milestone events marking America's long march towards freedom and equality for all.

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation—1 January 1863—ending the oppression of human bondage.

Booker T. Washington would later recall that the first time he heard of the proclamation, he was standing at his mother's side, as a man read it aloud. In Washington's words:

"After the reading, we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother . . . Leaned over and kissed her children . . . Tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us . . . That this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see."

One hundred years later, America, and, in time, the world, would witness the delivery of the most powerful speech of the 20th century. Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" sermon was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August 1963. Before more than 250,000 supporters, Dr. King began his remarks by invoking Abraham Lincoln: "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation." And then, Dr. King went on to share his dream of racial equality, where

"…One day [our] Nation will live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal. One day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight."

Though Dr. King's birthday is 15 January, the Nation sets aside the third Monday each January to celebrate his life as a national holiday. This year, the third Monday falls on January 21st—next Monday.

January 21st is also Inauguration Day: the second inauguration of America's first African-American President. So, our celebration this year honors the memory of Dr. King as we bear witness to one of the world's most significant political moments: the inauguration of an American President. And in the backdrop to all of this is Abraham Lincoln's hand in signing a proclamation that declared freedom for an entire oppressed people. There is no more fitting, no more proper image than the convergence of this solemn ceremony and this celebration of the life of one of the great men in American history.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that we all have the power to make the Nation stronger and better—a powerful lesson for all Americans of every faith and color. My own community, of Asian-Pacific Islander Americans, found its voice as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed largely as a result of Dr. King's determination and leadership. His holiday is a time for self-reflection and an opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves to the principles of citizenship and proud and selfless service to our community and our Nation.

God bless the memories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Abraham Lincoln. God bless our good President, Barack Obama, on his inauguration for the second term. And may God continue to bless this great Nation—and all who have served her.

Thank you.