In communities across America, Martin Luther King Jr. Day isn’t just another day off from work. It’s a day to promote volunteerism, to reaffirm their commitment to social justice, and to honor his legacy as a civil rights leader who fought for a brighter future with his message of peace.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed on the third Monday of January each year. Fittingly, it is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, which urges all Americans to embrace the holiday as a “day on, not a day off.”
Indeed, Dr. King’s sermons, speeches, and nonviolent protests during the civil rights movement still inspire activism more than 50 years after his tragic death. To commemorate his message, many communities organize a day of service. Others sponsor artistic performances of poetry, music, and dance, and some host prayer walks or parades.
The events are sponsored by a cross-section of city governments, nonprofit groups, religious organizations, and schools, all reminding local residents of Dr. King’s immortal words: “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.”
In Palo Alto, California, the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center invites local residents this year to its 13th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Day of Service, in which individuals and families can participate in more than 25 small-group projects that address issues of poverty, hunger, housing, homelessness, aging, the environment, and more.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Commission in Bloomington, Indiana, which seeks to promote diversity year-round, also sponsors a “birthday celebration” on the federal holiday. In addition to volunteer opportunities throughout the day, the evening event includes keynote speeches by local professors, choir performances, and an awards ceremony to recognize locals who have made significant contributions in the area of race relations, justice, and human rights.
Similarly, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Rockville, Maryland, is an annual tradition that was started 48 years ago to celebrate diversity within its community. This year, it will feature live performances, free refreshments, a keynote speech, and opportunities to build winter survival kits for homeless veterans and make blankets for children in need. Organized by the city’s volunteer-led Human Rights Commission, it also awards a local high school student who has worked to fulfill Dr. King’s dream, as well as a business, organization, or adult who has helped to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
Farther south, the city of Greensboro, North Carolina, is honoring Dr. King’s birthday with a parade being organized in part by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The city’s International Civil Rights Center & Museum will also show the documentary “King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis.”
Each year in Irving, Texas, near Dallas, thousands turn out for Martin Luther King Jr. festivities at the Irving Arts Center, featuring live music and dance performances by the Dallas Black Dance Theater, while communities in and around New York City rally behind Volunteer New York to make laundry kits for low-income neighbors, put birthday bags together for kids in need, or write inspirational notes and cards for deployed service members.
Students stand up
But it’s not just adults who lead the charge on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Students across the country also take part in civil rights demonstrations, rallies, and special programs that encourage dialogue about social justice and inclusion.
For its part, Providence College in Rhode Island will observe the national holiday with a week-long convocation event with workshops on economic inequity which are facilitated by the Non-Violence Institute, student activist awards, discussion forums, and a candlelit prayer vigil. To break down walls and encourage students from all backgrounds to come together, as Dr. King envisioned, it will also feature a student celebration to showcase the hidden talents within their community.
Some schools, like Mill Creek Elementary in Lenexa, Kansas, encourage their students to raise their voices in gospel song as they reenact the “Freedom March” that took place in Washington, D.C., in August 1963.
Others march in silence through their communities, holding handmade posters and peace signs to raise awareness of populations that remain disenfranchised and to remind each other every year that equality is, and always will be, worth the fight.
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