"Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love." —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1968
Holidays are often spent at home relaxing, catching up on chores around the house, or watching the newest show on Netflix. Although holidays are meant to honor a significant event or person, how often are we using that time off to continue to the legacy of said event or person? This is how Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is different: it’s a day on, not a day off.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is observed on the third Monday of every January, meant to commemorate Dr. King’s birthday. This year’s MLK Day falls on January 17, 2022. What is unique about this holiday is that it is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service. This year marks the holiday’s 27th anniversary of dedication to service. It was designated as such to encourage Americans to volunteer to improve their communities in honor of Dr. King’s life of service and to remembering, honoring, celebrating, and most importantly serving in the hopes of creating a more just world, just as MLK had dreamed of.
Who was Martin Luther King, Jr?
Martin Luther King Jr. is arguably the most well-known and successful civil rights activists in American history. Born on January 15, 1929, he was the face and voice of the American Civil Rights Movement during the mid-1950s up until his assassination in 1968. Dr. King fought for equality and rights for disadvantaged groups, with a focus on uplifting the African American community. He was known for being a great orator, a passionate leader, and a persuasive pastor who was able to effectively mobilize millions of Americans in the fight for a more just society. Ultimately his efforts resulted in the monumental passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making the Civil Rights Movement one, if not the most successful civil resistance movement in American history; in large part thanks to Dr. King’s leadership.
History of MLK Day:
Although it seems obvious that Dr. King led a life that was more than worthy of having a holiday in his honor, it was quite a battle to legally establish the holiday. There were those who saw the immense and immeasurable value in the work he did and those who felt threatened by it. Originally proposed a short four days after his assassination on April 4, 1968, it wasn’t until 15 years later that the holiday was officially accepted into law. On November 2, 1983, after intense and sustained public support, having a six million signature petition in favor of the holiday, the King Holiday Bill was signed into law by President Ronald Regan. The first MLK Day was celebrated on Monday, January 20, 1986.
A little over a decade later, Congressman and fellow civil rights leader John Lewis called for the holiday to be “a day on, not a day off.” Lewis was inspired by the life of service Dr. King had led, and felt it was the best way to honor his legacy. On August 23, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act into law, making the holiday the first and only federal holiday dedicated to service.
However, struggle for complete recognition of the holiday continued, with many southern states resisting. It wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 states officially recognized the special day.
Why It’s Important:
MLK Day of Service is not only important because it’s a time to remember and honor all the work Dr. King did in his fight for racial justice and civil rights, but it also serves other important purposes: an example to inspire, strengthen community, and to engage citizens.
A day dedicated to service is important because it’s an opportunity to strengthen our communities by unifying us in common causes. Dr. King taught us about the power in unity, the possibilities it creates for change when we work together for the betterment of all. His life’s work is our call to action. As. Dr. King once said, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Great things are hard to achieve without collaboration and unity with a shared goal. It is not the scale of service that counts most, but the quality.
Over the last two years, we as a global community continue to endure the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the hardships that have come with it. The pandemic has highlighted the persistent and deeply embedded inequity that continues to grow throughout our communities and the broader world. Dr. King’s fight for racial justice and economic equality are fights that are we still battling today, and that the pandemic has exacerbated; there is much work left to be done. Dr. King’s ability to successfully create and sustain a movement is an important example to inspire others.
How to Celebrate:
MLK Day is an important reminder that each of us are capable of making a difference in our community by giving our time. This is why the best way to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is to serve your community! If you can, setting aside the time to volunteer on MLK Day of Service is a way to honor the life and legacy of Dr. King while also engaging with and improving your community.
Investing time into your community can take many forms, whether it is physically volunteering, investing in or donating to worthy causes, or using your voice to contact local, state, or national elected officials. Serving your community doesn’t have to be one thing; any and all actions are valuable, and we all have something to offer whether it be our time, efforts, or service. There are opportunities to serve all around you!
Opportunities to Serve:
The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNSC), now known simply as AmeriCorps, has been tasked with spearheading the call for service for the past quarter-century. To find volunteer opportunities near you or remote service opportunities, AmeriCorps has a database to help you serve this MLK Day. Click the link, type in your zip code, and check the MLK Day box to find service opportunities: Find a volunteer opportunity | AmeriCorps
Redwood Empire Food Bank
A great local volunteer opportunity is with the Redwood Empire Foodbank. To join their fight to end hunger, commit to volunteering with them on Monday, January 17. There’s a limited number of shifts are available from 9am-12pm and 1-4pm, at two different locations throughout Santa Rosa. View the link to learn more and register to serve your community: Volunteer at the Food Bank
National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture also has an opportunity for COVID-friendly service, calling for participation in the transcription of the Freedmen’s Bureau papers. The NMAAHC says this of the project, “The Freedmen's Bureau, was created by Congress in 1865 to assist in the political and social reconstruction of post-war Southern states and to help formerly enslaved people make the transition from slavery to freedom and citizenship. In the process, the Bureau created millions of records that contain the names of hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved individuals and Southern white refugees. Transcribing these original documents will increase our understanding of the post-Civil War era and our knowledge of post-Emancipation family life.” Forms of service such as this are important as we reflect and honor the legacy of Dr. King. To learn more about this project and partake in it visit the following links:
The Freedmen's Bureau Records | National Museum of African American History and Culture
Browse Projects | Smithsonian Digital Volunteers
Other local opportunities: Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership (CVNL)
To learn more about this story and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, visit the links below.
A short video worth watching: MLK Day Legacy of Service 2020
This story was researched and written by Madelynn Cox, Community Engagement AmeriCorps VISTA.