Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough
Veterans Health Administration Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Commemoration
January 13, 2022
Hello, everyone! Thank you, for that kind introduction.
Thanks as well to the VHA Black Employment Program Managers who brought us together today, and who do great work every day. And thanks, most of all, to all of you for taking time out of your very busy schedules to join us this morning.
It’s an honor to be here with you, and to join you in celebrating and learning from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
You know, last night, I was doing some reading in preparation for this speech. And I got a chance to revisit the last speech Dr. King ever gave, just one night before he was murdered in Memphis in 1968.
It’s an incredible speech, delivered by an incredible man. And in it, Dr. King tells a story that I’d forgotten—about the first time he survived an attempted assassination, years earlier in New York.
He recounts how he’d been stabbed near the heart, and how the New York Times had reported that if he’d sneezed, he would have died. And he adds that he got many letters in the mail in the days following that attempted assassination, but there’s only one letter that he’d never forgotten.
He’d received letters from the President and Vice President.
He’d received a letter from the Governor.
But the one that stayed with him, the one that he always remembered, didn’t come from a world leader or a celebrity or a politician—it came from a little girl in New York.
And it said simply: “I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy you didn’t sneeze.”
Dr. King goes on to say that he was glad that he didn’t sneeze too, because if he had, he wouldn’t have been around for the sit-ins and the marches and the freedom rides.
Or to bring the Civil Rights Bill into existence.
Or to tell America about a dream he had.
Suffice it to say, I think we’re all glad he didn’t sneeze, too.
Dr. King concluded that speech by saying, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know... that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
“I may not get there with you, but we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
He was killed the very next day.
I tell that story because I’ve been thinking a lot about that idea Dr. King puts forward at the end of the speech, and therefore, the end of his life—that idea that “I may not get there with you,” but by serving together, by working together, we will get there...
... we will build an America where true equality is not a far-off dream, but a reality.
As Dr. King predicted, he never got to see us reach that mountaintop. None of us have. But, generation by generation, we have climbed further up the mountain as a country—and as a department, as VA.
That slow, steady, march of progress—that bending of the arc of the moral universe—is exemplified by so many of the people on this call today, so many of the Veterans we serve, and so many employees at VA.
Take Melissa Bryant, for example—a 3rd generation Black Army combat Veteran.
After Melissa’s grandfather was killed in action fighting for our country in World War II, many of the Black soldiers he fought alongside were denied the GI bill benefits they’d earned, simply because of the color of their skin. And now Melissa, his granddaughter, who followed his footsteps into the military and served in the Iraq War, is a deputy assistant secretary at VA—helping run the organization that turned away so many of her grandpa’s brothers-in-arms all those years ago.
That’s what, I think, Dr. King was getting at when he ended that final speech: with each passing generation, we get closer to that dream, that mountaintop, of true equality.
And, like Dr. King or Melissa’s grandpa, we may not get there ourselves—but we, as a people, will get there.
Now, inherent in that idea is a recognition that even now—all these years after Dr. King was assassinated—we are not there yet.
We’ve come a long way, yes. There has been progress, of course. But we are not at the promised land.
That’s true for us as a nation, and for us as an organization.
That’s why, here at VA, we need to listen to Vets and employees, particularly Black Vets and employees, about where we’re falling short and what we need to do better. We need to follow through on the recommendations of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access—or IDEA—Task Force, which were released earlier this week. And, most of all, we need to serve Black Vets, Vets of Color, LGBTQ+ Vets, Women Vets—all Vets—every bit as well as they have served our country.
Because they deserve the best, and we can never give them anything less.
There’s so much more I could say here, but it all boils down to this:
For too long, too many Vets who fought to protect our rights and freedoms have had to fight brutal battles here at home for their own rights and freedoms.
Tragically, many of those fights continue to this day.
But at VA, it’s on us to make sure those fights are over.
And that’s exactly what we are going to do.
That brings me to my final point, which is how we get there.
Dr. King was very clear on this: the path to progress, in his view, is paved by service.
This is a man who once said that “everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.”
... that “the measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.”
... and that “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Dr. King understood, better than anyone, right up to the last moments of his life, that democracy isn’t destiny—it doesn’t just survive on its own. It’s on us to preserve and protect it.
He knew better than anyone that progress doesn’t just happen. It’s on us to make it happen.
And he knew better than anyone that the fundamental promises of America aren’t just kept. It’s on us to keep them.
Well, looking at the folks at this event, and knowing what you do every day—especially during the pandemic—I can’t think of a group of people who live that ethos more than all of you.
These are, as Dr. King says, “times of challenge and controversy”—and rather than staying at home, or going to a different job, you have chosen to run into the fire to help people. To fight for those who fought for us. To serve. And for many of you, this isn’t the first time you’ve chosen to serve our country.
Bottom line: if life’s most persistent and urgent question is “what are you doing for others?”, it’s a question you answer resoundingly.
You risk everything, and sacrifice so much, to save lives.
There can be no better answer than that.
Now, you may never have gotten a letter in the mail from a stranger who is glad you didn’t sneeze.
But I know that, 1) there are a whole helluva lot of people out there who are alive and well today because of your service. And 2) you have made—and will continue to make—VHA a more equal, equitable, inclusive, and better place for all of your colleagues and all those we serve. And for that, our nation is forever in your debt.
So thank you for all you do—and please, keep it up.
As Dr. King said on that final night in that final speech, we may not get to the mountaintop individually, but together, as a nation and a VA, we will get there. And when we do, I know that it’ll be public servants like you leading the way.
With that, I’ll let you get into the rest of the program here.
Thanks again for having me, enjoy the rest of the event, and may God bless you, our Nation’s Vets, their families, caregivers, and survivors. And may we always give them our very best.