Growing up in the segregated south, Lt. Gen. Aundre Piggee recalled his first experience with racism many African-American children faced at the time. So he looked to the iconic Martin Luther King Jr. for inspiration.
While he would go on to encounter other acts of discrimination, this one hurt the most, he said.
The parents of Aundre Piggee pin second lieutenant rank onto their son in 1981 after his graduation from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
He grew up in Stamps, a small town in southern Arkansas with a population of about 1,200.
While his father was principal of the local school, which had previously been an all-black school, his mother worked at the Lone Star Army Ammunition Plant in nearby Texarkana — and a young Piggee became the first African-American child to integrate into his little league baseball team.
“Things went well the whole season,” Piggee said Jan. 17, 2019, after he spoke at a ceremony here in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “We integrated well and we had no issues.”
When the baseball season ended, the team held a celebration at a local Boy Scout hut. Piggee begged his parents to go since he wanted to party with his friends.
But when they walked up to the front door, he was denied entry. Some parents of the other players even worked as teachers under his father, but they still would not allow him in.
“They didn’t let me come to the party because I was black,” he remembered.
Images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are seen on display during a ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., Jan. 17, 2019.
(Photo by Sean Kimmons)
While racism had likely been around him before, he said it was the first time he personally noticed it. The incident also made him think deeply about his own character.
“It was a humbling experience,” he said. “But what it taught me was that I didn’t ever want to treat anybody else the way I had been treated.”
A young Piggee was held to a higher standard by his parents. The general’s biography says whenever he got into trouble during school, he would get lectured and punished by his father twice — in the principal’s office and at home.
“It was a lesson that served him well in life,” his bio reads.
On April 3, 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to deliver a speech in support of black workers being paid significantly lower wages than white workers.
His flight to Memphis was initially delayed due to a bomb threat, but he made it to the city in time for his speech. The next day, while outside his motel, King was assassinated.
On Jan. 15, 2019, the civil rights leader would have turned 90 years old.
King’s leadership values were passed down to Piggee by his parents who strove to live by the message he left behind.
“My parents gave us examples of King’s life and what right looked like,” he said. “And I still remember those to this day.”
Members of the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” perform during a ceremony honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., Jan. 17, 2019.
(Photo by Sean Kimmons)
A life of service
In almost 40 years of service, Piggee has held the title of commander five times. He now oversees policies and procedures used by all Army logisticians and manages an billion portfolio.
October 2018, he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame for his dedication.
Fellow Stamps native Maya Angelou, a poet laureate, was among the first inductees in 1993.
Piggee’s childhood home was a block from a general store, which was owned by Angelou’s grandmother. “I used to walk there almost every day,” he recalled. “For a nickel, I could get two cookies and some candy.”
Angelou worked for Martin Luther King as a civil rights activist and later wrote a poem for the dedication of his monument on the National Mall.
Lt. Gen. Aundre Piggee, the Army deputy chief of staff for logistics, speaks during a ceremony in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., Jan. 17, 2019.
(Photo by Sean Kimmons)
Leading by Martin Luther King’s example
Also inspired by King, the general often shares with soldiers his three leadership traits — competence, commitment and high character.
In his speech, the general noted that King had a strong vision to change the country.
“Competence is what we need of our soldiers,” he said. “If I can challenge soldiers to improve every day, to be more competent, to be readier to do the mission our nation asks of us, I have had a good day.”
King, he added, was also committed to his cause.
“That should be a model for our professional soldiers,” Piggee said. “Putting on this uniform is a noble cause, but doing the missions the Army asks of you is not always easy.”
The most important trait, he said, is high character — a tough lesson he once learned as a child.
“Dr. King’s dream was to judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin,” he said.
This article originally appeared on the United States Army. Follow @USArmy on Twitter.