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MLK Day: United We Serve

As we prepare to honor the legacy of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is essential to remember that it is not simply a day off from school or work. Celebrating the legacy of Dr. King, the holiday is celebrated on the third Monday in January. MLK Day of Service is the only federal holiday designated as a National Day of Service to encourage all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities. MLK Day of Service is a defining moment in volunteerism. Americans nationwide step up to make communities more equitable and take action to build the Beloved Community of Dr. King’s dream. While Dr. King believed wholeheartedly that this community was possible, he acknowledged and fought for systemic change. His example is our call to action.

The creation of MLK Day was a hard-fought battle between Dr. King’s supporters and those who felt threatened by his advocacy. In 1983, Congress passed legislation making Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. This was thanks to Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott-King, the King Center Rep. John Coyers, and the Congressional Black Caucus.

Although this was an outstanding achievement, the battle was halfway over as the holiday needed to be recognized on the national level. A stand-off between the NFL and the state of Arizona came about over their refusal to adopt the holiday. Southern states showed the most resistance, and some tried to combine Martin Luther King Day with celebrations of Confederate leaders. In 2000, all 50 states officially adopted MLK Day, 32 years after it was proposed.

This year’s theme for January 15, as announced by The King Center, is “It Starts with Me: Shifting the Cultural Climate through the Study and Practice of Kingian Nonviolence.”

The Kingian Nonviolence entails a love-centered way of thinking, acting, speaking, and engaging, leading to cultural and societal transformation. Through Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence, the Beloved community of The King Center hopes to provide a sustainable solution to injustice and nonviolence in our world while empowering others to pursue interpersonal and social change.

During the last quarter century, MLK Day of Service has grown, and its impact increased as more Americans embraced the idea that citizenship involves taking an active role in improving communities.

To get mobilized for this great day of service, here are some community-based ideas for service and what you can do nationally.

Community-Based Service:

  • Search MLKDay.gov, spearheaded by AmeriCorps; the site allows you to search MLK Day virtual and in-person volunteer opportunities in your local area and explore other resources.
  • Visit, donate, or volunteer at a local civil rights museum.
  • Find ways to support the National Civil Rights Museum or get involved with your local historical society.
  • Visit the Idealist website for volunteer tasks and locally-based volunteer opportunities.

What You Can Do Nationally:

  • Volunteer to transcribe historical documents through the Smithsonian Digital Volunteer Program
  • Write a thoughtful letter to a senior citizen through Letters Against Isolation
  • Use Catchafire to access flexible, virtual volunteer opportunities that exercise your skill sets and support nonprofits.

No matter how you choose to serve your community, in honoring Dr. King’s legacy each year, we have the unique opportunity to reflect on the gains made and re-commit ourselves to the work that remains as we strive for a more just society.

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