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MLK observance: Breaking barriers then, now

Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris, assistant vice chief of staff and director, Air Staff, speaks at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Observance in the Pentagon Auditorium, Washington, D.C. Jan 25, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Andy Morataya)

Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris, assistant vice chief of staff and director, Air Staff, speaks at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Observance in the Pentagon Auditorium, Washington, D.C. Jan 25, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Andy Morataya)

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris, the assistant vice chief of staff and director of staff, was the keynote speaker for this year’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observance at the Pentagon, Jan. 25, 2017.

Joining her in addressing the standing-room-only audience were Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Michael Rhodes, director of administration, Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer.

In his first public address in the Pentagon since becoming secretary of defense, Mattis shared, “Our armed forces are stronger today because of the perseverance of Dr. King and so many others in this country who have fought for civil rights and equality for all.”

Harris reflected on growing up as an Air Force dependent and the impact King’s life and work had on her and recalled the reactions from those around her when he was assassinated in 1968

“Although even then I didn’t quite understand the magnitude of the man he was, what I witnessed from my parents, from our friends, from the television coverage, was the emotion of extreme sorrow and grief,” Harris said. “In life and death, Dr. King was a catalyst for change. Righteousness prevailed, and his legacy was forever woven into the fabric of who we all are today. … While he was a man fighting for justice and equality among all races and all our glorious skin colors, the traits he lived by were colorless.”

Harris described how King set the example of how we can all selflessly serve our fellow Americans and change our communities for the better.

“He shows us that the commitment and character of the few can alter the course of history of the many,” she said.

She went on to describe similarities between King’s teachings and changes in Air Force culture over the years.

It starts with the words “you can’t, or it can’t be done” she described. If it’s said that someone can’t be who they want to be, or do something they want to do, “it provokes a powerful response that says ‘yes, we can; we can break that barrier.’”

She elaborated that the Air Force takes pride in breaking barriers, from missions such as air and space to cultures such as race and gender.

“Many of these barriers were broken in response to ‘you can’t;’ it started because ‘you can’t’ is incendiary – it’s like the fuel that powers our jets and our rockets and our innovative spirits … what evolves are bold and innovative ways to make change and solve problems.”

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