By Ian Morton
It should be impossible to think about the U.S. Civil Rights movement and not picture Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Very likely, when you hear that name, the words “I have a dream” come to mind, as this is the most quoted bit of King’s 1963 speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. But King was more than a dreamer or a great orator — he was a doer who spent his time among the people. It is for this reason that having a “Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service” makes so much sense.
While King’s birthday was recognized as a federal holiday in 1983 — and observed nationally in 1986 — it was in 1994 that Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act. The legislation which launched this initiative has been folded into the U.S. president’s “United We Serve” project, which is administered by AmeriCorps, the volunteer arm of the Corporation for National and Community Service. While many businesses give employees this third Monday in January a day off from work, United States citizens are encouraged to “make it a day on, not a day off,” by engaging in volunteer work in their community.
As we enter into a new year — and a new decade — with all that modern technology has brought us, it is as urgent as ever that we heed King’s call to action. In his words from that famous speech, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy…Continue to work, with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.” As a black man in the early ’60s, King realized, as many marginalized communities still do today, that the work toward equality and equity must not let up; even if they do not see the full results in their lifetime.
This day also speaks to the importance of community, which can serve as sources of motivation and accountability of our resolve to engage in volunteer work. While King may have been the visible face and orator of the Civil Rights movement, he did not work alone. He counted on the strength and wisdom of those outside of his ministerial background; individuals such as playwright Lorraine Hansberry, poet James Baldwin, singer Nina Simone, and his administerial right hand — black gay man, Bayard Rustin.
As was King’s experience, when we put our time and effort into volunteering for the causes about which we care, our own community expands, and we find that the differences that seemed so great actually matter very little. In his 1967 essay, “The World House,” King admonishes us, “This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.” When we take the time to answer a call to better our world, alongside our fellow humans, there is just no room left for separation.
So, how do you go about engaging in the MLK Day of Service? One great resource is the Corporation for National and Community Service website: nationalservice.gov. On their front page is a search engine for volunteer opportunities, organized by ZIP code. If you happen to be employed by a larger company, there might be a project that your fellow employees can get behind — or maybe you can be the one who starts that trend? Lastly, if you type “MLK Day of Service” into your Facebook search, you will find opportunities and events, such as the HRC “Care Bags Assembly” at the Lafayette Hotel on Sunday, Jan. 19.
At the start of each year, so many of us resolve to make changes to improve ourselves, and the MLK Day of Service is a great jumping off point to start improving the world. Whether your preferred cause centers around social justice, environmental issues, homelessness, at-risk youth services, or any other number of worthy causes, take the time this Monday to get engaged. As Dr. King wrote, “We cannot walk alone,” and there are friends in the cause waiting to walk with you!