The Service Component to MLK Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably the most influential activist our nation has seen to date.

He organized a civil rights protest of over 200,000 people in Washington, led the Montgomery Bus Boycotts which culminated in a Supreme Court ruling outlawing bus segregation, and became the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize—all by the age of 35. To commemorate his accomplishments advancing civil rights in our country, we observe a federal holiday in January each year.

Many Americans, however, are unaware of the service component to MLK Day. Initially proposed by U.S. Senator Harris Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, the federal holiday—officially known as the MLK Day of Service—is observed as “a day on, not a day off” for the entire country. To honor his legacy, Americans are encouraged to volunteer in communities across the country.

Apart from one of civil rights, MLK’s legacy is a legacy of service. He brought communities together through his activism and leadership, and his use of nonviolence encompassed strong elements of compassion and humanity, both of which are rooted in American ideals. But above all, his life’s work taught Americans the value that comes from interacting with people of backgrounds different from their own.

Diversity is what makes the Untied States exceptional among the world’s leading nations. The “melting pot” quality of our population reaches far back to our country’s history, and it gives us that competitive advantage in today's globalized world. For this reason, we should embrace diversity and inclusion, not shy away from it.

The MLK Day of Service encourages us to embrace our diversity by bringing communities together through service and volunteerism.   Last year, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) released a comprehensive overview of volunteering and civic engagement in our country. Aside from uplifting statistics on how much Americans actually give back to their communities, the report points to one significant trend: the more people volunteer, the more they interact with one another. It seems that civic life in our country grows with each service hour—the report shows that Americans are interacting with their neighbors more, voting and participating in political life, and even joining community organizations.  And through this direct correlation between volunteerism and civic life, our collective power to enact change and solve local issues can undoubtedly increase.

MLK once said, “Everybody can be great because anybody can service.” The MLK Day of Service echoes this same sentiment. The holiday is more than just honoring Dr. King’s legacy and his fight for equality in our nation.  It’s about remembering our civic duty to give back to our community.  The service component to MLK Day helps foster a social environment to encourage Americans to embrace our nation's two most important traits: service and diversity.