DAHLGREN, Va. – Frank White recounted that he saw ‘Hidden Figures’ – the latest of many movies he enjoyed watching at the Dahlgren theater since he grew up in the 1940s and 1950s near the base where his World War II veteran father worked.
The retired Air Force officer who served from 1957–1983 stood on the theater’s stage as a keynote speaker before a packed house of military personnel, government civilians, and contractors celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) sponsored observance, Jan. 15.
White regaled his audience with fascinating stories about growing up near the base – now called Naval Support Facility Dahlgren – while his father and mother owned and operated a country store. “There were female hidden figures working at Dahlgren back in the day,” said White, citing Gladys West, as an example. West – the second African American woman hired by NSWCDD – was a mathematician and an inventor of the global positioning system.
While the Navy’s hidden figures worked at NSWCDD, King engaged in non-violent protests as an activist but he was also a humanitarian. “He spoke up for the poor, the needy, the downtrodden, the oppressed and the underprivileged,” said White. “Dr. King was an advocate who believed in freedom and justice for all. He also spoke out against the Vietnam War which divided our nation. He was an encourager. I think Dr. King would have whole heartedly endorsed that Army slogan popular a few years ago: “Be all you can be.”
White recited a portion of the ‘Sweeper’ speech that King gave to high school students in Philadelphia.
“What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends: Even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures,” said King in his October 1967 speech. “Sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say – here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
“It was an inspirational speech that reminds us that whatever we do we should always strive to be the best in our life and in our work,” said White who acknowledged his struggle to find words to adequately describe Dr. King.
“Down through the years, renowned scholars had wrestled for the words,” said White. “Dr. King was a fervent preacher. He preached many fine sermons but I’m no preacher. Dr. King was a vivid speaker, he gave many great speeches. I would be doing an injustice to the man if I tried to recite any of them in its entirety. Dr. King had charisma. His voice was such that even today, you would immediately recognize his voice with its distinctive tone and diction. Dr. King was a man of vision. Dr. King and the word ‘dream’ are closely associated together. He voiced the content of his dream in his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963 as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
Throughout the nation, countless newspaper headlines coupled with radio and television news broadcasts reported on King’s non-violent Civil Rights movement and his persistent message to extend a helping hand to others.
“News reporters would ask him, ‘Dr. King, why are you marching and from whom or where did you get this principle of non-violent demonstration,” White told the audience as he reenacted an interview between King and the news media. “Dr. King would invariably answer: I’m marching for freedom, justice and equality. I came from a family of preachers. I grew up under a biblical principle (Matthew 5:39-44; Romans 12:14) of love your enemies, bless them that curse you, turn the other cheek, and pray for those who despitefully use you.”
Moreover, King explained to the reporters that his nonviolent civil rights demonstrations were inspired by the nonviolent campaigns waged in India by Mahatma Gandhi against the British government. Ghandi’s method worked and the British eventually turned India over to the Indian people. Likewise, King’s nonviolent demonstrations and boycotts resulted in a series of civil right victories, leading to the 1964 Civil Rights Act which eliminated legalized racial segregation in the United States. This landmark legislation made it illegal to discriminate against blacks or other minorities in employment practices, public accommodations, transportation and education.
Eight years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional after King activated a 13-month mass protest in Montgomery, Ala., that began in December 1955 in response to the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus. In ‘Stride Toward Freedom’, King’s 1958 memoir of the boycott, he declared the real meaning of the Montgomery bus boycott to be the power of a growing self-respect to animate the struggle for civil rights.
“In the dark, dismal day of segregation, he had a dream,” said White as he recalled King’s peaceful civil rights protests. “In the days of white and colored water fountains, back of the bus, segregated school, hand me down books, second hand citizenship, denied admission to libraries, restaurants, no service in stores, and other public places – he still had a dream. In that dream, he looked to the future to a time when his four little children and all people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. He tried to live that dream and turn that dream into reality. He and his followers were faced with attack dogs, water hoses, they were beaten with police bully clubs, and jail time. Nationwide, we watched it on ABC, NBC and CBS. When I see some of those film clips today from that time period, my mind goes back to portions of a speech that Robert Kennedy gave at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.”
White recited a portion of Kennedy’s June 6, 1966 remarks to the National Union of South African Students known as the ‘Day of Affirmation’ speech: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples to build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
White recollected the faith and optimism in Dr. King’s attitude, remarks, and actions.
As a case in point, White pointed to King’s optimistic outlook upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964. “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind,” said King in his speech.
“In looking back at American history over the past 50 years, we find that a lot of Dr. King’s dream has materialized,” said White. “We have had a black American president, we’ve had black governors, U.S. senators and representatives. Females have been elected or appointed to more positions of authority in both the public and private sectors. We’ve seen an increase in the number of minority and female officers. The first female four-star Navy admiral, Adm. Michele Howard, retired in 2017.”
What would King think about this progress if he were alive today?
White concluded that the civil rights leader would likely say: “Keep on marching, we’ve come a long way. We’ve encountered some rough bumps in the roads along our journey. Sometimes we’ve had to dance in the rain but we’ve made a lot of progress so keep on marching. Walk together children and don’t rest on your laurels. Just keep on marching to ensure that our ship will sail and stay afloat. Cast your ballot, don’t forget to vote. Vote in every local, state, and national election, then you will have a voice in making a selection. Hitch your wagon to a star and be the best at whoever you are. Keep on marching. Keep on loving. Keep on caring. Keep on, keep on, keep on.”