Learning and Making a Difference on Dr. King’s Birthday

January 26. 2024

January 15, 2024, marked the 38th celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday as a federal holiday. Although the first attempt to make Dr. King’s birthday a holiday came just four days after his assassination, the push for the holiday finally passed in the 1980’s during Reagan’s administration. While that marked a victory to many, it also came with a troubling rhetoric that was used to co-opt King’s legacy and use his words to undermine racial justice. As long as MLK’s legacy is, there is an equally long legacy of groups intentionally and unintentionally co-opting or sanitizing it for their own purposes. To sanitize is to “make more palatable by the removal of elements that are likely to be unacceptable or controversial.” During our celebration this year, we tried to face uncomfortable truths about the way racism has and continues to shape our society. Instead of cherry-picking quotes or thinking of racial justice in the past tense, we asked all of our Illinois JusticeCorps participants to bring to life Dr. King’s call to action.

Throughout last week, and the weeks leading up to the MLK Holiday, we provided members with opportunities to learn finer details about King’s teachings and the life he led. We provided them with a variety of resources to hear Dr. King’s lesser known speeches, expose them to the teachings related to Non Violence and the Beloved Community, and share pieces from modern activists and scholars about the racial justice King fought for. AmeriCorps, the federal agency for national service and volunteerism, asked us all to “honor Dr. King’s legacy by working toward a more just and equitable society, where everyone is valued and respected, regardless of their race, ability, religion, or background. By participating in service projects, we can bridge divides, heal wounds, and create lasting change that will benefit our communities for years to come.”

In 1994, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, sponsored by the famous civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis, transforming the day from a simple federal holiday “to support the planning and performance of national service opportunities in conjunction with the Federal legal holiday honoring the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Congress entrusted AmeriCorps with making Dr. King’s birthday “a day on, not a day off.” Every day, and especially on Dr. King’s birthday, AmeriCorps provides “opportunities for Americans of all backgrounds to serve their country, address the nation’s most pressing challenges, and improve lives and communities.”

JusticeCorps members, as AmeriCorps members, spend every day serving their country and community by helping people without attorneys navigate the legal system. For the MLK Day of Service, we pushed them to think about other ways they could impact their communities that would be meaningful to them. Members participated in a variety of self-led service projects. A theme emerged showing that many of our members wanted to help local entities provide food for people facing food insecurity. Members set up food drives at their courthouses or volunteered at food banks and food pantries to help with distributing food. Other members joined in their communities’ celebrations of Dr. King and took time out to learn about Dr. King’s teachings and recommit to finding ways to serve.

At the end of week, we met as a group to share our individual experiences. On top of that, a couple of our members provided us with a presentation on the racist practice of redlining and how Dr. King fought alongside the Chicago Freedom Movement to end unfair housing practices. Within the presentation, members made connections between unfair and racist housing practices to other inequities experienced by black people and African-Americans, such as environmental concerns, health disparities, quality of schools, and food apartheid. The rest of our time was spent reflecting on the holiday, its meaning, and discussing the barriers and inequities faced by people Illinois JusticeCorps serves at the courthouse. They reflected on the difficulties people without lawyers face: access to reliable internet; conscious and unconscious bias from the court for the way people talk or dress; and distrust of law enforcement, to name a few. 

Overall, the week turned into a meaningful experience for many and marked a productive time together as a statewide team. Feedback from members will help shape how we move forward in our daily lives, as well as thinking ahead to next year when we will be asked to set special time aside, on his birthday, to honor King’s legacy once more.

If celebrating King’s birthday teaches us nothing it is that you don’t have to and should not wait for January 15th to honor his legacy. Take the opportunity today to commit or recommit to volunteer to serve others. Find opportunities in your area by visiting https://americorps.gov/serve/volunteer/mlk-day.

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