Photo by Rachel M. Larue
Dr. Valerie Petit Wilson speaks during the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day Jan. 8 in the JBM-HH Community Center.
As a child, Dr. Valerie Petit Wilson watched Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech on a grainy black and white television set.
"His actions stirred the nation’s consciousness about the long, lingering impact of the enslavement of black people and opened the door to civil rights for all classes and all kinds of people," Wilson said Jan. 8 during Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s annual "Remember! Celebrate! Act!" program honoring King.
"Now when I fast forward to today and see and remember all the changes that were catalyzed by his leadership, it’s hard to remember when these freedoms were not so," she continued. "But remembering them is so important so as not to forget the struggle it took to eat at any lunch counter, to sleep in any hotel, to drink at any water fountain or to sit where you want to on a bus anywhere across the country."
Wilson, guest speaker for the event, has served as the deputy division director for graduate education at the National Science Foundation since August 2011 and holds a doctorate in molecular biology from The John Hopkins University. She is also the daughter of a World War II Navy veteran and the wife of a Vietnam-era veteran.
"I join a grateful nation in saying thank you for protecting me and our country," she told the servicemembers gathered at the community center for the celebration.
"If you view the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. holiday not as a day off, but by remembering the purpose of the date, by responding to the challenge of service and resolving to do your best to create a more just and humane society for yourself and for those of us around you, you will change the course of the world and in the process you will change yourself," said Wilson.
She said commemorative holidays such as the one honoring King Jan. 20 are set aside to focus on the reason for the commemoration.
"In the context of the Martin Luther King Day, a day off is an opportunity, it’s a chance to put aside the requirements of the day, to turn our minds and the rest of our beings to the purpose of the day," explained Wilson. "For this particular commemoration, it’s a chance to connect to our deeply held aspirations for a more just and equitable world that we hope for."
Wilson noted that Congressman John Conyers introduced legislation to make King’s birthday a holiday eight days after the civil rights leader was slain in 1968.
"As history indicates, that particular legislative proposal was not successful, but Congressman Conyers resubmitted the request in each subsequent legislative year," she said. "In total, it was 15 years after Dr. King’s death that then President Reagan signed the holiday into law Nov. 2, 1983, and it was first celebrated as a federal holiday in 1986. It wasn’t until 1993 that it was celebrated in all 50 states."
JBM-HH Commander Col. Fern O. Sumpter said King had an impact on her life both personally and professionally.
"He not only gave the ultimate sacrifice, but for those of you, like I, who have probably done a lot of traveling across the waters he is not only an icon for the United States, but really is an icon for the whole world," Sumpter said.
She added, "I will tell you this, I personally feel as though I would not be standing here if it were not for Dr. Martin Luther King specifically and the things that he has done for our nation and for the world."
Staff Sgt. Adiza Jibril performed the national anthem to open the ceremony and the invocation was given by Chap. (Maj.) Jerald Jacobs, deputy joint base chaplain. A food sampling concluded the presentation.