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Harris Wofford is a former Senator from Pennsylvania. He was an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and co-author with Congressman John Lewis of the King Holiday and Service Act, which established the King Day as a day of service. He was instrumental in the creation of the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, and he was CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. He served as Special Assistant to President Kennedy for Civil Rights, was president of Bryn Mawr College and is author of the book “Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties”.
The logic for making the holiday for Martin Luther King a day of service "a day on, not a day off," is simple and clear. What would Martin have wanted it to be? Anyone who knew him or marched with him or read or heard his words knows that he would not have wanted it to be a day for rest, recreation, shopping, or just doing nothing.
He might have felt honored if he knew his words were read, recited and remembered, because he believed that in the beginning is the Word and some of the greatest words in American history were his. But above all, he dedicated his life to the proposition that the word must be made flesh. He would have wanted his day to be a day not of apathy but of action.
That was the logic that led Congressman John Lewis and me to author and introduce the bill that in 1993 declared the King Holiday a day of service, and authorized the Corporation for National and Community Service to help organize service projects nation-wide. Participation has grown each year, and Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have each called upon Americans to roll up their sleeves and work together for that one day to signal how citizens can do their part to fulfill King’s Dream, which is a now a key part of the American Dream.
In joining together in doing this, each of us, each school, neighborhood, religious congregation, corporation, labor union, civic organization, neighborhood, city and state, and all the media of communication, should seize the day – Carpe Diem – to show what can be done by the combination of service and civic action that King preached and practiced.
During the year following the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, my wife Clare and I were driving Martin and Coretta King from Baltimore to Washington. That evening we had heard Martin excoriate a national black fraternity for spending more money on its weekend convention than the whole annual budget of the NAACP. Sitting in the backseat, Coretta was telling Clare of her recurring nightmare that at the end of the road Martin had chosen he would be killed. Martin leaned back from the front seat and said that instead she should dream of all the things they could do while he was alive. Then he added, “I didn’t ask for this. I was asked to step forward and I said Yes.” He then hummed a line from a spiritual: “The Lord came by and asked and my soul said Yes.”
King wanted the civil rights movement to be a mighty, peaceful and persistent “No” to segregation and discrimination, but he also wanted it to produce a mighty, creative and effective “Yes” to equal opportunity and justice. He cited Mahatma Gandhi’s insistence that the other side of the coin of civil disobedience is constructive service. King added his own favorite watchwords:
Everybody can be great because anybody can serve.
And for citizens to be great, they also have the duty to vote and participate in the process of self-government. King’s first great call to the nation, after the Montgomery bus boycott ended with a Supreme Court victory, was his address at the Washington Monument in 1957 – for action to end the denial of the right to vote in almost a third of the country.
So seizing this day, in King’s name, let’s remember the full-bodied King – the King not only of constructive service, but the King of political action and social invention focused on the campaigns for the civil rights acts of 1957, 1964 and 1965.
The ministers, Women’s Council and NAACP leaders who assembled after Rosa Parks was jailed for saying “No” to moving to the back of the bus, decided to organize a one-day bus boycott. They turned to the young new pastor and asked Martin to lead the protest, and he agreed. For not just a day, but for a long year, the 40,000 black citizens of Montgomery walked and car-pooled but stayed off the buses – and made history. A decade long season of civil disobedience was underway, with King and a growing number of others, black and white, young and old, walking in protest and willing to go to jail in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi.
In 1935, the dean of Howard University’s chapel, Howard Thurman, and others went to Gandhi to ask for his help. “Come to America, not for White America, but for the Negroes,” Dr. Thurman pleaded. “How I wish I could,” Gandhi answered, but said “I must make good the message here before I bring it to you.” After hearing Mrs. Thurman sing Jacob’s Ladder, Gandhi added that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”
Twenty years later, Gandhi’s spirit did travel to America, in the words and actions of Martin Luther King. On the first night of the bus boycott, when the decision was made to continue to stay off the buses until victory, in King’s first address to the crowded, cheering boycotters, he said:
Once again we must hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you. If we fail to do this our protest will end up as a meaningless drama on the stage of history. If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, ‘There lived a great people—a black people--who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.
Forty-two years after Coretta King’s nightmare came true in the sad spring of 1968, when we also lost Robert Kennedy, let’s make this a day to remember those black Americans who lived up to King’s hope, and those white Americans from all over the country who joined hands with him and sang, “Black and white together, we shall overcome.” And then let’s look forward to the challenges before us and make the long and deep commitments, far beyond days of service to the years of working together, that will be necessary to break the barriers to equal opportunity and build the institutions of education, health care, full employment and self-government necessary to solve our most important social problems.