To serve is to help carry on MLK’s legacy of peace and social justice
“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
An important part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message was that anyone can make a difference and have lasting impact through service. Every day, Americans of all ages rise to this call through individual and collective commitments to national service programs like AmeriCorps and Senior Corps. And every January, on MLK Day, millions more across the country make it their mission to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy by taking meaningful action and participating in a day of service, honoring the visionary who challenged America to dream and to activate those dreams by doing good with and on behalf of others.
As the country comes together to celebrate the 25th MLK Day of Service, we reflect on the civil rights leaders and activists who were integral to championing MLK’s legacy, making the holiday in his name “a day on, not a day off.”
Congressman John Lewis
In March of 1958, John Lewis, then 18, rode a bus down to Montgomery, Alabama to meet with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired by his conversation with Dr. King, Lewis joined the growing Civil Rights Movement and began his advocacy work rooted firmly in service to fellow citizens, his community and his nation.
One of the last surviving leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis has devoted his life and his career as a member of Congress representing his Georgia district to carrying out the legacy of his mentor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Despite the struggles he and countless other civil rights leaders have faced throughout history and still wrestle with today, Lewis continues to convey his belief “in a society where we can live together as brothers and sisters” and create a “beloved community” in America.
It is this notion that drives his life-long support for national service programs. In commemorating the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, Representative Lewis said, “AmeriCorps is important because it provides an opportunity for citizens to come to understand aspects of our society they can only perceive in the classroom of experience. They can see, touch, and feel the struggles of other citizens and participate in helping to solve the challenges of our nation.”
Among his many accomplishments that have built on the values born of Dr. King’s legacy, his advocacy for national service has given thousands the opportunity to be lived examples of Dr. King’s vision as exemplified through their service to help communities recover from natural disasters; support student and school success; connect veterans and their families with services to reintegrate into their communities and secure employment; and promote critical public health initiatives.
Senator Harris Wofford
A lifelong advocate of nonviolent protest, Harris Wofford was an early supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired by his role in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, he sought out Dr. King, and soon became a friend and advisor, marching alongside him in Selma, Alabama.
Wofford later served as assistant to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and as President John F. Kennedy’s aide, forged the Kennedy administration’s civil rights policies. Throughout the rest of his storied career, from his role in the creation of the Peace Corps to the halls of Congress, Wofford led a life that built on Dr. King’s deep commitment to service. He believed, much like Dr. King, that service had the power to unite Americans in shared purpose and create a more just society.
While CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, Wofford tirelessly defended AmeriCorps in the face of budget cuts and spent the rest of his career strengthening bipartisan support for the program.
Senator Wofford passed away a year ago today, perhaps an appropriate day for a hero in the national service movement who sparked a rich generation of service, poised and prepared to continue to grow for years to come.
Teaming up to establish a nation of service leaders
In their shared time on Capitol Hill, Sen. Harris Wofford and Rep. John Lewis came together and led the effort to establish what we now know as the MLK Day of Service. Lewis and Wofford co-authored the King Holiday and Service Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1994. In recognition of Dr. King’s legacy of service and leadership, Congress designated the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday as a national day of service and charged the Corporation for National and Community Service with leading this effort.
Twenty five years later, MLK Day of Service continues to be a “day of action, not apathy,” and projects run by nonprofits and national service programs across the country range from food drives, to park and waterway cleanup efforts, and youth engagement efforts. Some of the current projects include:
- City Year, an education nonprofit that brings together AmeriCorps members to serve in schools in 29 U.S. cities, hosts service projects to help make schools a place where kids want to come and learn.
- Rebuilding Together, a program supporting AmeriCorps members in doing a variety of repairs and modifications to improve the safety and health of homes, hosts MLK Day service projects to benefit New Orleans residents in need of support.
- The Puerto Rico Commission for Volunteerism and Community Service is currently mobilizing AmeriCorps members to distribute supplies and assist in the recovery efforts for those affected by the recent earthquakes.
These projects and many more, empower individuals, strengthen communities, bridge barriers, address social problems, and move us closer to Dr. King’s vision of “the Beloved Community.”
Honoring MLK’s legacy and keeping his work alive
Since its inception in 1994, the Corporation for National and Community Service has coordinated efforts to mobilize more than a million American citizens in service to their communities. Each year, over 275,000 volunteers join AmeriCorps and Senior Corps to serve across 45,000 locations, investing time, energy, skills and focus on getting things done to benefit millions.
Ongoing bipartisan support for national service has made initiatives like AmeriCorps a success and has allowed for the expansion of nonprofits fueled by national service. Considering the current challenges throughout the political landscape, this support across party lines is an extraordinary testament to the value that national service members provide to their communities in putting people on pathways to lifelong learning and meaningful civic engagement.
During the last quarter-century, the MLK Day of Service has grown in size and impact as more Americans embraced the idea that citizenship involves taking an active role to make our communities better. On this 25th annual celebration of MLK Day of Service, let us remember the teachings of Dr. King, who offered this wisdom to guide us into the future we collectively create with our actions: “Love each other and never hate, for hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
This Monday, January 20th, instead of taking the day off, go out and serve others with an open mind and an open heart. Help carry the legacy of service created by civil rights leaders like John Lewis, Harris Wofford and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You have the power to keep this legacy alive. Help bring forth a new year and a new decade of peaceful collaboration for the good of all citizens across our great nation.
Civil rights leader John Lewis reflects on MLK’s legacy of service and his first meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.