“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “Every time I think about it, it’s like pulling a scab off a sore.”
Almost 51 years after hearing the fatal gunshot that ended his friend’s life, Jesse Jackson is still haunted by the loud crack that interrupted the cool calm of an April Memphis evening and subsequently took the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“It’s a hurtful, painful thought: that a man of love is killed by hate; that a man of peace should be killed by violence; a man who cared is killed by the careless,” said Jackson.
Much was lost along with King’s life. His death catalyzed an increasing number of his supporters to adopt a more violent approach to gaining equality—an approach often condemned by King himself—which led to nation-wide riots that would claim the lives of 39 people in the months following his death.
“We had to make a big decision: allow one bullet to kill a whole movement for which we worked and forfeit the game, or fight even harder, and we did that,” said Jackson. “In his name, we kept fighting. We’ve never stopped, as a matter of fact. He laid the groundwork. The coalition started rebuilding on the ground laid by his philosophy.”
For the majority of instances, King’s philosophy won out. Global culture has been positively affected in different and, sometimes, surprising ways by those whom King’s ideas and teachings have inspired.
Airman 1st Class SaiAnni Hyatt, 60th Dental Squadron dental assistant at Travis Air Force Base, California, is one such devotee to the ideals King left behind.
In her two years in the service, Hyatt has used the freedoms fought for and won by King and the civil rights movement of the 60s to not only continue to advocate for justice within the Air Force culture, but spread what qualities King helped to stoke in the American people as a means to ensure the readiness of her base’s Airmen and the success of their mission.
“Matters of equality and righteousness go hand in hand with readiness in the Air Force,” said Hyatt. “How can I have a sound mind and be expected to complete the mission if I have thoughts of suicide or of being sexually harassed or even being discriminated against for the person that I am? In my mind, they all are intertwined into the bigger picture.”
“Mission success comes when everyone is unencumbered by discriminatory practices that prevent them from bringing all that they are to the defense of the country,” said Hyatt.
Hyatt’s quality of life has been elevated to a point where she can pursue and become the person she wants to be due in large part to the work of King and the civil rights movement, she said.
“Not only do I have equal rights, but I also have the opportunity to seek higher education without fear of discrimination,” she said. “I’m able to do basic things like choosing whatever seat I want to on a bus and in a movie theater. I can use the nearest bathroom and eat in any restaurant. Today, we do these things without thinking, but there was a time when people who looked like me couldn’t do such things, and that’s important to remember.”
It was President Harry S Truman who on July 26, 1948, desegregated the armed forces after over 170 years. Remembering these facts can be hard, said Hyatt, but it’s always important.
“Black women weren’t even allowed in the regular military until after World War II,” said Hyatt. “But here we are, 70 years later, and I’m not only serving, but in a position to make meaningful strides and even suggest policy changes within my squadron. It’s worth looking back and appreciating just how much we’ve gained in all that time and how far our words and ideas can stretch.”
King is oft-quoted as saying “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It wasn’t until last year that Jackson, now 77, made his own addition to the famous quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long and it bends toward justice, but you have to pull it to bend; it doesn’t bend automatically.”
Hyatt isn’t sure if she’ll be making a career of the Air Force, but she does know that however long she’ll stay in, she’s going to bring nothing but her best to every day, to ensure readiness in her unit and bend that arc to whatever direction that will allow her and the people she works with the freedom of a voice that carries, causes change and gets the mission done.
“Everyone benefits from equality and fairness,” she said. “We meet people from all walks of life causing connections and friendships to be made. Perspectives are different because of the vast diversity of opinions and experiences, which is beneficial because of how many of those different perspectives can be used toward solving a collective problem for the good of all people, not just a select few. Being a part of a community not only raises morale, it makes people feel like they are a part of something greater than themselves.”
The Guardian contributed to this article