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MLK Day National Day of Service: Remember. Celebrate. Act.

Image of MLK infographic. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings live on today in the military. The Defense Health Agency celebrated his lasting legacy to all communities at a Jan. 17 ceremony emphasizing his birthday as a day of service. Credit: Kim Farcot, Defense Health Agency

“The true measure of a man is not where he stands during periods of comfort but where he stands during periods of strife and conflict.”

With that quote, Defense Health Agency Director U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Telita Crosland opened the DHA’s ceremony on Jan. 17 to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work and its meaning today to all communities.

The enduring theme of the day was “Remember. Celebrate. Act. A Day On, Not a Day Off” because Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is the only holiday that is a National Day of Service. “His mission to work for justice through nonviolent action and community service has been passed on through the generations; it must continue with us,” said Christianne Witten, DHA’s chief of internal communications and the virtual ceremony’s moderator.

Ronald Evans on King’s Teachings and Their Impact on His Life

Ronald Evans, the ceremony’s guest speaker, strives to make the nation better one young man at a time.

He is a co-founder of the nonprofit The Hypeman Foundation, where HYPE stands for “honoring your perseverance and exceptionalism.” The foundation helps young African American men between the ages of 18-25 and beyond and makes use of a “village of support” that includes scholarships, mental health and psychological counseling, financial planning and investment, spiritual and leadership guidance, educational resources, and career planning and placement.

A U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor and 20-year veteran, Evans now teaches culinary and hospitality services at a public school in Virginia. Yet what he really instills in his students are life skills with an inspirational tone and caring touch, Witten said. “We are a stepping stone,” Evans said.

Asked if he has a favorite King quote, Evans said: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl.”

“It means you don’t just move around … you move your mind and your soul. Keep moving. That’s what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in all his speeches,” Evans added.

Witten agreed, saying: “I think sometimes we may limit ourselves in our thinking of the impact we can have on those around us and those that are looking up to us. All of us have the opportunity to be a mentor and be a symbol of embracing growth, embracing self-improvement. We should never limit ourselves to think otherwise.”

Asked why he thinks Martin Luther King Jr. Day is important as a day of service, Evans said: “Just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean we have to sit and chill. It means we have to do something better, do something to be better.”

“It’s not just how we improve ourselves, but what are we doing to invest in the communities in which we live,” Witten said.

Evans said he uses his teaching as a “life skill. I use it because these people that didn’t have mothers or fathers or somebody to come to or somebody to talk to. All people are created equal regardless of race, gender, and creed,” Evans said, “so I look at that as who can I help next?”

The military and the Military Health System “is such a model for diversity and operating toward a common purpose, a common mission that transcends any sort of barriers,” Witten said, adding: “The heart of it is treating each other with dignity, respect, compassion, and kindness from the moment they arrive.”

How King’s Teachings Still Affect Us Today

Witten asked Evans how King’s teachings have shaped our current society. ”We should continue to work together in an effort to achieve our nation’s goals of creating a more perfect union by just continuing to say ‘hello,’ continue to say ‘I love you,’” he said. “If King did it, how come we can’t do it?”

“You’ve got to get back up, you’ve got to continue to move, you’ve got to continue to do what’s right, and continue to love and grace each other, no matter what the race, no what the creed is, no matter what the color is, you’ve got to continue to do those things,” he added.

Evans also discussed when it’s time to call someone out for their behavior, building on King’s quote: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

“Sometimes, we come off as harsh, and the other person is not going to receive it well,” Evans said. “For me, I want to make sure I have a conversation with that person because you have to call it what it is. And then, how do you fix it? How do we fix it?”

Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood: The DOD and King’s Legacy

Closing the meeting, Crosland “threw down a gauntlet,” and asked that “everybody online do one thing to make somebody else feel better today. That will be a good step toward the legacy we discussed today.”

“The armed forces are stronger today because of the courage and determination of Dr. King who called upon all Americans to work together to become a stronger and more united nation,” said Gilbert Cisneros, Jr., the Undersecretary of Defense for Personal Readiness, in a Jan. 12 memo.

That means “recognizing and appreciating the diversity and unique talents of all who serve, protecting our civilians and service members from hateful and discriminatory acts, and ensuring everyone with the [Department of Defense] is treated with dignity and respect.”

“Every civilian employee and service member must do their part in fostering a culture of dignity, diversity, inclusivity, and respect,” Cisneros wrote. “We must continue to transform Dr. King’s legacy to action and work together to create lasting change that makes us stronger as a department and as a nation. We can do much more together than apart.”

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. But the day before, on April 3, 1968, King delivered his last speech at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ headquarters) in Memphis, Tennessee, during which he said: “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

That dream–his last teaching–still stands today as a watchword.

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