Today, we mourn the anniversary of the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, the pacifist and leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Eventually, that movement revitalized the Feminist Movement, which is what enabled me to serve my country as a patriot-warrior. Admittedly, “warrior” is too strong a word to apply to someone whose missions mainly included ferrying diplomats without spilling their coffee, but I had been willing to serve where I could. I cannot remember Dr. M.L. King without remembering all the African American Air Force Officers who mentored me when the caucasian officers ignored me.
A great leader does not actually create change; he or she inspires the best efforts of brave, nameless individuals who are willing to register to vote; march when threatened; endure insults, humiliations, and violence; and stand up for themselves and others in countless, uncomfortable situations that never make the news. The unsung foot soldiers create and sustain the change in society. Today, I not only honor Dr. King, but I recall with gratitude the efforts of ordinary people who stood up for me.
A disproportionate number of the officers who inspired me or supported me during my Air Force career are Black. They were the men (they were almost all men, back then) who could appreciate the challenges of being a minority in the existing Air Force culture. They did not coddle, but they offered me frank answers and advice.
Please indulge me while I name a few of those unnamed foot soldiers who carried on Dr. King’s legacy. General Daniel “Chappie” James was the first to inspire me with his charismatic call for “strength” when fighting for the “privilege” to serve one’s country. General Edward A. Rice was “just” a cadet when he stopped by my dorm room to encourage my roommate, who had been the target of undeserved hazing, to tough it out at the Air Force Academy. Allison Hilsman Hickey went on to help break down barriers to women in the Air Force, such as removing unreasonable restrictions on pregnant pilots, before designing a total force deployment structure still in use today, and retiring as a Brigadier General herself. She also helped me survive my freshman year. Major John Kershaw taught me how to be a good Operations Officer, as well as opening my eyes to the everyday obstacles faced by Black men in Maryland (and elsewhere) in the 1990’s. Colonel (late retired Brigadier General) William E. Stevens gave me my first command, after schooling me in surmounting cultural differences, not only in a mostly white, male Air Force, but in Arab African military and diplomatic circles.
The best way to honor Dr. M. L. King and all of his foot soldiers is not through moments of silence, but by carrying on their legacy of non-violent intervention. I encourage everyone, female, Jew, geek, varsity, gay, to refuse to be treated as inferior. Stand up for your privilege to serve your country to the fullest extent of your talents.