United for the greater good

Op-ed: "Hidden Figures" film demonstrates silliness of segregation in time for MLK Day.

This month, the film "Hidden Figures" hits the movie theaters, chronicling the untold, true story of the three African-American women — Katherine Johnson and her two colleagues, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson — with exceptional math minds who helped advance our nation's space program. Without them, it's unlikely that astronaut John Glenn would have orbited the earth. Yet despite these women's formidable gifts, they worked in a segregated division of Langley Research Center. Their situation demonstrated the silliness of segregation, when the best minds are required to create something larger than themselves — something as bold as sending a man safely to and from space for the first time — yet they are still required to suffer the dehumanizing bite of racial prejudice.

This month also brings the annual observance of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. This great civil rights leader noted throughout his short life that the oppressor is as diminished as the oppressed; both are tightly yoked, mutually bound and mutually harmed by the oppression. While the oppressed may suffer physical pain, the oppressor suffers as well — the psychological and spiritual pain, the moral and ethical pain, and the legal pain that comes with intentionally harming another person. As King expressed before his assassination, oppression of one race, simply put, robs all of us of the possibilities and potential that exceptional people of every race can bring to bear for our greater good.

The notion that people of all races and traditions can live, work and prosper together for the greater good is the essence of King's message as the drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. It's the lesson implied in the "Hidden Figures" film, illustrating how math geniuses who never set foot in space proved to be instrumental in helping us beat the Russians in the Space Race. President Harry Truman understood this and officially ended segregation in the Armed Forces in 1948 following World War II — 20 years before King's March on Washington and his "I Have a Dream" speech. Even with that, however, some forms of racial segregation continued.

The military represents our nation at its best, offering us and the world the greatest example of American ideals: that all men and women are created equal, and that regardless of our individual weaknesses, our collective strengths fortify us all. Through training in all branches, the military teaches individuals to function as a single unit, that every unit member is vital to the mission, and that they can retain their individuality at the same time. The military proved a long time ago that a group with members of varied backgrounds generates more ideas and encourages individuals to live up to their best potential, and as a result, members tend to perform better when producing innovation. Some in the corporate world have recognized this as well, often highlighting diversity as a selling point to recruit and retain workers.

This practice of uplifting individuals while uplifting the team is why many military veterans can go on to become effective leaders and citizens in our communities. They understand the power and value of national service.

Although progress has been slow, King's work and the efforts of other civil rights activists demonstrate that justice and morality supersede injustice and discrimination, and these negative actions must never be tolerated.

At the VA Maryland Health Care System, we honor people. Fortified with over 3,000 employees and volunteers, we show the nation what America is really about. It's a place of diversity and freedom; a place where we care and affirm each other; and a place where we serve with honor, courage and commitment and where our core values — a commitment to commitment itself, along with integrity, advocacy, excellence and respect — become part of our lives and fuel the care of those veterans who are enrolled in our facility. Our success is found in the concept of patient- and family-centered care. Our success is embodied in the traditions that allow us to shine our brightly-colored quilt called diversity in all of its honor and glory.

In America, where truth and freedom have been long celebrated, we can honor King's dream and legacy by promising to help one another, standing up for one another, exercising civility and serving one another, and believing that the exceptional minds of our national brain trust represent the best of all of us — citizens who come in all shapes, sizes, creeds and colors — the citizens of our great nation: the United States of America.

Dr. Adam M. Robinson Jr. is the director of the VA Maryland Health Care System. He can be reached at vamhcspublicrelations@va.gov.

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