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As the Martin Luther King Day of Service is upon us, we came across this video of our friend and former Case Foundation Senior Fellow Harris Wofford, who during his term as a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, co-wrote legislation challenging all Americans to transform the King Holiday into a day of citizen action and service. Although the scope of the event grows every year, it's surprising to note that many people still are not aware of the service component of the holiday.
As a quick history lesson, the campaign for a federal holiday in King's honor began soon after his assassination in 1968, but it wasn't accomplished until President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was first observed in 1986. The legislation that Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis co-wrote was then signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, and since that time hundreds of thousands have recognized the day each year by tutoring, mentoring, serving food at soup kitchens and giving back to those in need. As Michael noted in his post last week, service is something that many consider a uniquely American tradition of neighbor helping neighbor problem solving – and, perhaps there is no better way to kick off the inaugural festivities next week than to bring people together from different backgrounds and ages to serve alongside one another.
Wofford, who was an early supporter of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1950s and became a friend and unofficial advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., half jokingly says in the video, that if Dr. King were around today he might say, "Well I thought your idea was that all Americans would engage in service on this day?" It's estimated that last year a record number of individuals or around half a million recognized the day by volunteering. But, I have to agree with Harris that a half a million is a bit short of all Americans.
As Special Advisor for Civil Rights under President Kennedy, Wofford also assisted Sergeant Shriver in founding the Peace Corps. As a great story teller, I've often heard him talk about a young volunteer who was asked why he decided to join the newly established Corps. Wofford says the young man responded simply, "No one ever asked me to do anything unselfish, patriotic, and for the common good," he said. "Kennedy asked." As so many great American leaders like Kennedy and King have done, President-Elect Barack Obama is now asking too.
Throughout the past two weeks of our Change Begins With Me campaign, we have been genuinely inspired by the thoughtful commitments of thousands of people across the country. Many of these commitments have been rooted in the importance of serving one's community. So, what are you doing to "make it a day on" this year?