HEADQUARTERS, NAVAL AIR SYSTEMS COMMAND, Patuxent River, Md.– Two inspirational stories filled with resolve, resilience, and calls for action highlighted Naval Air Systems Command’s tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK).
Shelby Butler, NAVAIR’s Office of Small Business Programs director, shared his family’s story of adversity, service, and character at a virtual event on January 18. His great-grandfather, along with his brother and sister, were shipped from Town Creek in St. Mary’s County to New Orleans as slaves. After witnessing his brother and sister die, Butler’s great-grandfather escaped slavery and joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War.
Butler, one of 11 children, described his family’s continued legacy of military service, including the ultimate sacrifice made by his son while deployed to Afghanistan.
“We have excellent character, and we couldn’t be more American,” he said. “Yet still, we are judged by the color of our skin.” Butler shared several encounters early in his civilian Navy career that was both uncomfortable and threatening. One involved a co-worker who regularly told him to be on guard.
In King’s iconic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, he advocated for equality and opportunity for all, regardless of skin color. He dreamt of a time when Americans would make judgments based on character, not color. He spoke about togetherness and his dream of freedom and justice.
Butler’s presentation provided perspective on the color of skin, the content of character, and judgment with a particular focus on “the actions we can all take, and the changes we can all make, today,” he said.
According to Butler, communication is key to advancing King’s narrative. “We need to have courageous, uncomfortable conversations that remain continuously relevant,” he said.
In his opening remarks, Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) Commander and African-American Pipelines Action Team Champion Rear Adm. John Lemmon emphasized employees can make a difference and advocate for equity and inclusion anywhere.
“Dr. King was one man, but he made an impact that was heard loudly and felt widely – in his own time and still today,” he said. “Remember that no matter where you are in this organization, our community, or society as a whole, you have the power to be a catalyst for change.”
Serelda Herbin, NAVAIR’s new director of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, is from a small town in Louisiana and was raised by her maternal grandmother until her grandmother’s death when she was in eleventh grade. Herbin’s mother was addicted to drugs, and her father left when she was three. She moved around a lot as she finished high school. She considered her community “family members by connection,” she said.
In her remarks, Herbin highlighted the obstacles she overcame throughout her life and provided a framework for moving forward through adversity. She put herself through college after earning several scholarships, and in 1999, she earned a commission into the U.S. Army.
According to Herbin, as a black, female, field artillery second lieutenant at Fort Bliss, Texas, she faced many challenges. After deploying to both Kuwait and Afghanistan, she was reclassified into the personnel career field. She was subsequently passed over for promotion to lieutenant colonel twice, which forced her to separate from the service early. Her answer to adversity was to earn her doctorate in strategic leadership.
“We need to build people up by treating them with dignity and respect,” she said. “We need to encourage them to show up, exercise their dreams, and put them into drive.”
In 1960, King’s Founder’s Day speech at Spelman College highlighted how to overcome obstacles on the road to freedom and fulfillment. Herbin used King’s words to inspire and motivate action: “If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means, keep moving.”
“Courage is a resolution to move forward,” Herbin said. She credits her faith and community connections for helping guide her throughout her life. “I am not my circumstance,” she said. “I had to open my eyes and believe in myself.”
In her remarks at a second virtual MLK Day event on January 19, NAWCAD Lakehurst Executive Director Kathleen Donnelly highlighted this year’s MLK Day national theme, “It Starts with Me: Shifting Priorities to Create the Beloved Community.”
“This speaks to the responsibility we all have to be better. To be more understanding, kinder, and more inclusive,” she said. “To find ways to make others feel respected, valued, and accepted. Your actions can truly make a difference.”
Butler’s final thought reinforced King’s message of togetherness. “When we work, walk, struggle, care, build, grieve, innovate, celebrate and succeed together, then we are truly stronger together,” he said.
The meaning of MLK Day resonates through the stories told and the lives changed by them. “We are the legacy of MLK; progress starts with each one of us,” Herbin said.
For more information on NAVAIR’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, visit https://jobs.navair.navy.mil/NAVAIR-Diversity-Inclusion.