WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. — The day to honor civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, and promote service through volunteerism was on Jan. 20. White Sands Missile Range observed the holiday at an event on Jan. 16.
At the event, Nicholas P. Charles, who has been working at WSMR for four years and served 20 years in the Army, spoke to attendees about King’s life and shared his personal experiences.
Charles remembers the events surrounding the assassination of King on April 4, 1968. He was a young child living in Washington, D.C., and did not recognize the impact this event would have on his life. But it was immediate and close to home, as he recalled his two older brothers returned home that night, “I remember these two coming out of the chaos that night, smelling of smoke, with anger and full of hate.”
The day after King’s assassination, amidst the disarray, it created a “mental memory in my mind that influenced me as an Army officer and now as an Army civilian,” said Charles.
He saw D.C. National Guardsmen, amongst others in uniform, maintaining and restoring peace in his neighborhood.
For him, the memories reinforce “the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.”
Charles went on to recognize King’s predecessors in the civil rights movement, such as Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. He also acknowledged a significant era in history that affected King’s activism; this was the 1902’s Harlem Renaissance. A moment in time that took place in New York and put a spotlight on the struggles of African Americans through intellectual, artistic and social movements.
“I’ll add that, with respect to timing, it was after World War II, and those Soldiers returned to a racist country after fighting fascism and imperialism,” said Charles. “This stoked the flames of equality and enabled Dr. King to move forward with the civil rights struggle.”
At the time, kids grew up witnessing the discrimination that their parents faced, and as education became more attainable for African Americans, attempts at breaking the cycle of oppression and inequality became more widespread.
“The strength of the civil rights movement was made up of people from the greatest generation and the youth of that time, tired of the oppression and unethical treatment of fellow American citizens,” said Charles. “The media showed a different picture and exposed the blatant racism occurring in this great nation, which really showed the actions taking place in Montgomery, Ala., with protests and how they were treating African Americans.”
While media exposed the treatment of African Americans to the world, it also perpetuated stereotypes. Throughout history, people of color have been depicted as subhuman in the entertainment industry and through various types of propaganda, said Charles.
“Sadly, the current politics, the antics of a few in Charlottesville, the shooting in El Paso, and other acts of violence around the country show that the United States continues to suffer issues with race,” said Charles. “The actions, behavior and attitudes seen on social media and validated in Virginia remind us that racism is alive and well in 2020, a sad reality.”
In 2017, Charlottesville, Va., was the site of a white nationalist rally which became deadly, killing one woman and leaving dozens injured. While in 2019, a shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, left 22 dead and 24 wounded. Authorities said the shooter targeted people of Mexican descent.
“Now, more than ever, service to our nation and communities is paramount,” said Charles. “Therefore, us coming together despite political affiliation to denounce injustice, immoral and illegal behavior is what is needed to mend the tears we currently have in our moral fragment as a nation.”
For over 70 years, the Department of Defense has been racially integrated, and continues to be at the forefront of these efforts. Charles shared that raising kids in the military, amongst diverse cultures, allowed them to grow up without seeing color.
“The military remains the bedrock of social equality,” said Charles. “I believe that Dr. King would be proud of the military achievements in respect to race relations. But we are a microcosm in society, and sadly some of these attitudes still find its way into our ranks.”
Charles shared a famous quote by King, ‘everyone has the power for greatness, not for fame – but greatness, because greatness is determined by service.’
In 1994, Congress designated the Martin King Luther Jr. holiday as a day of service. While the main objective is for people to go out and serve their communities, people are also encouraged to serve together and connect, despite the color of their skin, gender, age, or background.