Service Opportunities, Large and Small, Abound to Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

By Alexandra Beane — January 14, 2013

On Monday, Jan. 21, the U.S. will celebrate the annual federal holiday marking the birthday of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King. It is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service and volunteering – to “make it a day on, not a day off.” There are many service opportunities to honor the memory of Dr. King, so we want to provide some resources for finding them.

A Bit of History

A Baptist minister with a doctorate in theology, Martin Luther King, Jr. became a leader in nonviolent protest on behalf of civil rights and the fight against poverty, as well as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. He was killed in 1968 in Memphis, TN, where he had gone to campaign for better wages and working conditions for sanitation workers. The struggle to get a federal holiday commemorating his birth was a long one, lasting until 1986. In his proclamation for the holiday, President Ronald Reagan, said, “It is a time for rejoicing and reflecting. We rejoice because, in his short life, Dr. King, by his preaching, his example, and his leadership, helped to move us closer to the ideals on which America was founded. We reflect on his words and his works. Dr. King’s was truly a prophetic voice that reached out over the chasms of hostility, prejudice, ignorance, and fear to touch the conscience of America. He challenged us to make real the promise of America as a land of freedom, equality, opportunity, and brotherhood.”

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream”  speech. The King Center will have events between Jan. 11 and Jan. 21 to mark this anniversary. CEO Bernice King, who is Dr. King’s youngest child, said, “The King Center’s challenge to people of all nations is to begin a new era of nonviolent conflict reconciliation bringing people together across racial, religious, political and cultural divisions in keeping with Dr. King’s vision of the essential unity of all people.”

Volunteer/Service Opportunities

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service is part of United We Serve, President Obama’s national call to service initiative. It asks Americans “to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems.” People can find a project by zip code or plan their own project. For example, in Los Angeles, community and corporate volunteers will revitalize the campus of Washington Irving Middle School. In New York City, there will be an MLK Serve-a-Thon with the NYC Coalition Against Hunger and St. Peter’s Food Pantry. Volunteer and giving opportunities across the country are as simple as donating a coat or working at a food bank.

Because the holiday falls on Inauguration Day this year, when President Obama will be taking the oath for his second term, the Presidential Inaugural Committee is hosting a National Day of Service on Saturday, Jan. 19, with a wide variety of volunteer service events around the country. People can find volunteer opportunities for this day in their area at the National Day of Service site.

The Points of Light Foundation, a non-profit organization founded to promote volunteering, is partnering this year with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and Target to “create new and meaningful ways to harness the passion of our nation’s citizens in honoring the memory and promoting the vision of Dr. King.” They will host events in Washington, D.C., and throughout the nation during the holiday weekend, “linking the vision of Dr. King with inauguration events and engaging political leaders, celebrities and the community in service and dialogue.” CNCS is providing e-mail updates with opportunities for serving.

Extending the Nonviolence Philosophy to Animals

Tracye McQuirter, author of the book and website By Any Greens Necessary, noted that some of Dr. King’s family and followers have extended his commitment to nonviolence to animals through veganism. His son Dexter King became a vegan, and Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, was also vegan in the last decade of her life. Dexter King has said, “Veganism has given me a higher level of awareness and spirituality, primary because the energy associated with eating has shifted to other areas…If you’re violent to yourself by putting [harmful] things into your body that violate its spirit, it will be difficult not to perpetuate that [violence] onto someone else.”

Dexter King was introduced to veganism by comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, a close ally of his father’s. Gregory wrote, “I had been a participant in all of the ‘major’ and most of the ‘minor’ civil rights demonstrations of the early sixties. Under the leadership of Dr. King, I became totally committed to nonviolence, and I was convinced that nonviolence meant opposition to killing in any form. I felt the commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ applied to human beings not only in their dealings with each other—war, lynching, assassination, murder and the like—but in their practice of killing animals for food and sport. Animals and humans suffer and die alike. Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel and brutal taking of life.”

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