Service helps on MLK Day, but some say it's not enough
The week before Martin Luther King holiday, Theodore Herzl Elementary School on Chicago's West Side was abuzz with volunteers from the education nonprofit City Year, a part of the federal volunteerism agency AmeriCorps.
Herzl school is mere blocks from where King temporarily lived and worked during his Chicago campaign in 1966.
AmeriCorps members were there preparing the school for its upcoming MLK Day of Service, where volunteers would paint murals, hang shelves and fill gift bags with hats and gloves for Herzl students. The event was canceled Sunday due to inclement weather in Chicago, but a City Year spokesman said the group will discuss a potential makeup day.
"Our hope is that we would be making [King] proud as it relates to his legacy," said Valencia Koker, executive director of City Year Chicago. "In knowing that the school may not have the budget to invest, and you have an organization that's willing to come in and partner — I think that is something that really resonates."
The service project at Herzl was one of countless others planned throughout the U.S. on Monday, in what has come to be known as "A Day On, Not a Day Off" since 1994, when Congress designated King's birthday — observed as a federal holiday since 1986 — as a national day of service. But many familiar with King's life and work say one day of service does not do justice to his legacy.
The Rev. Frederick Haynes III, who leads the civil rights group Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said the day of service was a result of efforts by "those who were determined that it not become the typical, commercialized American holiday where we take a day off, go shopping, and while shopping, we get discounts in honor of Dr. King." Among these advocates were King's wife, the late Coretta Scott King, and fellow civil rights activist and late congressman John Lewis, Haynes said.
Still, he added, the day to mark King's legacy has been diluted over time.
"We have dumbed down the legacy of Dr. King by calling it a day of service," he said. These "niceties of service," continued Haynes, will "make you feel better, touch your life, but then you go back to business as usual. We still have an immigration policy that is broken, we still have what is raging over in Gaza, nothing has changed. Because we are so caught up in doing something nice for a moment that we don't deal with changing the world for a lifetime."
Haynes said Americans can take cues from King himself, who spent his final birthday, Jan. 15, 1968, at the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), planning a march for the Poor People's Campaign. Haynes' predecessor at Rainbow PUSH, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was there.
"I've often heard [Jackson] talk about the fact that on [King's] last birthday, he was planning... for social change that would disrupt the status quo in the name of lifting those at the bottom."
Some scholars say on MLK Day, Americans should revisit King's ideals, which were — and still are — considered radical by much of society.
"Many people saw his ideas as dangerous," said Lerone Martin, a professor at Stanford University and director of the school's Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, aimed at promoting and preserving King's work and legacy. He says there has been "a deliberate effort by some to take some of his words out of context and try to bend them towards the status quo."
He added: "If we're going to engage in service, and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., I think first and foremost, we have to know that legacy. King's vision, his words, his body of work should be the guiding force in the kind of service we engage in."
Martin said a day of service — and activism throughout the year — should center around efforts to dismantle what King called the three evils of society: racism, poverty and war.
Knox College professor Konrad Hamilton, who has taught classes on MLK, said people forget King was "arrested countless times [and] denounced by presidents and by powerful people during his lifetime. There wasn't that opposition to Dr. King because he was out doing canned food drives. Now, he would not have been against canned food drives, but he also would have said, 'What kind of a country builds an economy in a way in which people do not have their basic needs met?'"
Hamilton said on King's birthday, it would do Americans well to emulate the leader in asking deep, fundamental questions about how to create systemic change. He also said individuals and organizations should partner with others — including those whose beliefs may not line up perfectly on every issue — to bring about the "beloved community" of which King often spoke.
At Herzl school, City Year's Koker described the tutoring, mentorship and classroom assistance that AmeriCorps volunteers have provided year round for more than a decade. She said Monday's beautification project is a way to bring people of all backgrounds together to serve in unity, but lasting change happens only with long-term investments.
"As we all galvanize around MLK Day and service in general, it's important to keep that top of mind," she said. "If it does not, in some way, leave communities better than we found them, is it truly service?"
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