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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service
York, OA
January 16, 2023

Kim Bracey, thank you for that kind introduction. It’s a tremendous honor to join so many extraordinary Veterans and community leaders to celebrate the life and enduring legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Pastor Randy Zeiler, thank you for generously opening your church doors to us as we pay our respects to Black Veterans and Dr. King. Church was a hallowed place to Dr. King, and congregations played a central role in the civil rights movement and the Black experience in America.

We also know that Black Veterans play a critical role in churches across the country, and Black Veterans were vital to the civil rights movement as participants and as medics, logisticians, security, and leaders. Today, the church remains a place of hope, healing, and activism because of leaders like you. Dr. King would be proud of the great work he still inspires.

He would be proud to see who’s here today and where we are: a predominantly White church hosting a day of service to restore the gravesites at this historic local cemetery that is befitting of the service of our Black Veterans and leaders from all walks of life—of different races, faiths, and beliefs—rolling up their sleeves and working together as servants of the people to improve our communities. It’s exactly what he imagined—yet another sign Dr. King was not just prophetic, but a prophet.

Let me also acknowledge Maureen Weigl, Deputy Adjutant General Veterans Affairs, State of Pennsylvania; Tim Liezert, VISN 4 Network Director; Bob Callahan, Director, Lebanon VAMC; Mike Frueh, Principal Under Deputy Secretary, VBA; Veterans, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for all that you do in support of America’s Vets.

Let me offer a special word of thanks to Matt Quinn, our Under Secretary for Mortuary Affairs at VA, and the entire team of NCA professionals who do a magnificent job watching over Veterans resting in beautiful cemeteries across the nation.

And that’s why it’s important that I acknowledge Basil Biggs. One of the reasons we’re here today is because of him. Basil Biggs wasn’t a Vet himself, but he played a critical role creating the Soldiers National Cemetery. And Mr. Biggs launched The Sons of Good Will to provide Black Vets a dignified, final resting place after their honorable service in the Civil War.

So we’re here because Mr. Biggs made sure that the service and sacrifices of Black soldiers who stepped forward to fight our nation’s wars and defend this nation during periods of restless peace, who fought for freedoms that they did not enjoy right here at home, and whose devotion to enduring principles of “liberty and justice for all” would be treated with dignity and honor in death.

AmeriCorps, the Coalition for American Heritage, PA Hallowed Grounds, Friends of the Cemeteries in Pennsylvania, and the Black Cemetery Network are following his example, walking in his footsteps, ensuring that Black Vets more than 150 years later are still treated with the dignity and honor they deserve.

He would be proud of the work you’re doing.

More than a century and a half ago—34 miles west from where we now stand—President Lincoln dedicated the hallowed ground of Gettysburg to those who gave their lives to preserve our nation. “It is for us the living,” President Lincoln said, “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Lincoln’s words were marching orders for the nation, a timeless call to action.

Dr. King heard those words, heard that call, and it became his life’s mission to continue the unfinished work “that this nation, under God,” as Lincoln directed, “shall have a new birth of freedom.”

Dr. King answered the call to service and fought the good fight during a turbulent era of our nation’s history. Dr. King had the kind of courage, perseverance, and determination it takes to win and to achieve victory. And he knew, as he said, 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.”

Let me tell you a story about a man who teaches us that the highest calling in life is in service to others, and in lifting up and celebrating the human dignity of all people.

That man was Staff Sergeant Hosea Williams. Before he was an ordained minister and a civil rights advocate, he was a soldier fighting in the European Theater during World War II, in an all-Black unit in Patton’s Third Army. Sergeant Williams fought in brutal battles, was grievously wounded, shed his blood for this country, and for all of us. And when he came home, he returned with a Purple Heart and walked with a limp.

And how was he welcomed home and honored for his service? While wearing his Army uniform, he was savagely beaten. He was beaten so badly that the attackers thought he was dead. Why? Because that American hero, Staff Sergeant Hosea Williams was Black, and had dared to quench his thirst with water from a fountain marked “Whites Only.” After fighting the hateful enemies in Europe, he had to fight another enemy as insidious as any. Racism.

“The measure of a person,” King said, “is where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.” So Hosea Williams fought back with courage and with determination. He earned his high school diploma at the age of 23. He earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in chemistry. He became an ordained minister. He founded the Southeast Chemical Manufacturing and Distributing Company, three other chemical companies, and a bonding company, as well. He ran for Governor of Georgia, for a state senate seat, and for mayor of Atlanta. His wife, Juanita, served in the Georgia House of Representatives; and together, they raised eight children. Hosea was the founding president of a large social services organization which fed the poor and clothed the needy.  

And he was one of Dr. King’s most important and influential lieutenants. Staff Sergeant Hosea Williams could have given up after the beating. But he didn’t. He could have responded with violence. But he didn’t.

He could have become cynical, and angry, and apathetic when he had lost and given up so much for a country which didn’t give him the same love and respect in return. But he didn’t.

Instead, in those times of challenge and controversy when the true measure of a person matters the most, he had the courage to stand up. He shouldered that unfinished business President Lincoln described and became a servant of the people.

We have to all ask ourselves: where do we stand in times of challenge and controversy? Where do we stand when we face overwhelming odds? Lincoln knew where he stood.

Dr. King knew where he stood. And Sergeant Williams knew where he stood, and he knew what he stood for.

Reflecting on his life, Williams said, “God, time after time, had taken me to death's door, then spared my life ... to be a general in the war for human rights and personal dignity." Sergeant Williams understood what Dr. King articulated so beautifully years later—that the measure of a man depends on preserving his dignity during the difficult times. It’s no wonder why King made him one of his lieutenants. He knew what it meant to be a soldier—to fight to advance, to fight to preserve, and fight to protect human rights, civil rights, and human dignity.

The story of Hosea Williams is about the victory of human dignity. And that’s what we’re about at VA. We stand for equity. We stand for access for every Veteran. We stand for acceptance of all Vets. And we stand for equality.

Now I know that inherent in outlining where we stand today is the recognition that we haven’t always done these things in the past. In fact, we have not overcome America’s historical institutional racism. That’s true for us as a nation, and for us as an organization. We know that for too long, too many Americans have fought too hard to protect our rights and freedoms in battles around the globe, and then had to fight for their own rights and freedoms in brutal battles here at home and at VA. For too long when it comes to serving Veterans with dignity, with equity, with the civil rights that Dr. King fought for and demanded, we’ve come up short—for people like the soldiers buried here in the Lebanon Cemetery, for people like Hosea Williams. Sadly, many of those fights and battles continue to this day.

So let me leave with you this. At VA, those fights are over. In this Administration, those fights are over. We are working to right these wrongs, and to ensure we’re combating institutional racism and discrimination, rather than perpetuating it. We’re going to keep this country’s fundamental promises to Black Vets, and to all Vets “at times of challenge and controversy.”

We’re going to keep doing the work and to keep bending that arc toward progress, because they deserve the best, and we can never give them anything less.

Thanks, again, for having me. May God continue to bless the memory and legacy of Dr. King, and may he continue to bless all of you and the Veterans, families, caregivers, and survivors we serve.