The Director of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Civil Rights Directorate, Dr. Terri Dickerson, told her story to Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) employees during the Command’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Observance on Jan. 22.
Dickerson shared how she went from a member of the first class to integrate the New Orleans Catholic school system to a member of the Senior Executive Service (SES), provided tips on how to lead an inclusive organization, and highlighted the importance of King’s leadership and his words.
NSWCPD’s Commanding Officer, Capt. Dana Simon introduced Dickerson to the workforce highlighting her accomplishments from winning the Presidential Meritorious Executive Rank Award to her best-selling book “50 Activities for Diversity Training.”
“It’s great to see the crowd for today’s event, I’m honored to be a part of the celebration of the life of our nation’s greatest civil rights leader,” Simon said. “I can think of no better way to honor Dr. King’s life than with our special guest Dr. Terri A. Dickerson.”
Dickerson was in the first grade when she was one of the first students to integrate the New Orleans Catholic school system in New Orleans in 1962. Her school integrated for the first time eight years after Brown v. Board of Education decision declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, and two years after New Orleans public schools integrated, the New Orleans Catholic school finally allowed black students to go to white schools.
“Know one thing for sure, I was not supposed to be here, I was not supposed to be a member of the Senior Executive Service corps,” Dickerson said. “I was born in New Orleans when our country practiced laws of segregation by race.”
Dickerson was born in a black hospital, her mother who held a master’s degree could only teach at black schools, and her father served in WWII when racial segregation was still the armed forces official policy.
She faced several challenges as a member of the first integrating classes, from verbal insults from teachers and adults in white neighborhoods to threats of physical violence and having rocks thrown at her and her sisters.
Without her father’s and sisters’ support, Dickerson said she wouldn’t have been able to go to school every day. Dickerson’s father served as a role model, a veteran who started his government career as a wage grade employee at the U.S. Postal Service and eventually became a member of the first cadre of SES corps. He always pushed her to go after job opportunities for which she initially didn’t think she was qualified.
“My father used to say, ‘Terri, never eliminate yourself, there are too many people out there trying to do that.’ He said that often,” she said.
During his career, Dickerson’s father also served as an investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that was established in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a piece of legislation for which King was responsible.
Dickerson tied King’s words to the events of history, highlighting his importance in the fight for civil rights. She also asked NSWCPD’s leaders to consider his words when making future decisions.
“How are we using our power? It serves to reflect on King’s 91st birthday. What are you willing to give up for what is right?” Dickerson asked the audience. “Comfort is overrated; Dr. King wasn’t expecting comfort when he fought for our rights.”
NSWCPD employs approximately 2,700 civilian engineers, scientists, technicians, and support personnel doing research and development, test and evaluation, acquisition support, and in-service and logistics engineering for Navy ships. NSWCPD is also the lead organization providing cybersecurity for all ship systems.