Nothing worthwhile comes easily, or quickly. It took 15 years from the time of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 for Congress to establish a national holiday in his honor. It took 3 more years, until 1986, for the first state to observe the holiday. And it wasn’t until 2000 – 42 years later – for all 50 states to observe a day of service in honor of the work of MLK. Since his death, the ideas of freedom and justice for all have evolved to meet the needs of the present moment.
Since then, every year, MLK Day has meant different things in different communities. The struggles for every person to have freedom, equity, and personal agency continue across the country every day. Advancements have been made at a high level – legislation has addressed rights to vote, own property, start businesses, receive equal treatment in hiring and in the workplace, and other areas. But we have seen countless examples in the last 2 years of the areas that need further progress and change, in individual and collective lives.
The true spirit of MLK Day, and the way to respect and emulate all activists, is unique to every community. Neighbors know how they are treated and how they treat each other. They know the ways they are unfairly excluded from access to opportunity, and from the benefits others receive. Some of these inequities can only be resolved at the level of legislative intervention. Others must be tackled at the block-by-block level, with individual people, families, and community groups creating the conditions they want to see in the world.
The pandemic has changed the needs, and the activism strategies. In Philadelphia, many groups are responding to the moment provided on January 17th. This time of collective action provides fuel to propel activism efforts, so they don’t begin to wane over the course of the year. Like the New Year, it is a day to reset, refocus, and reinfuse energy into the work.
Anyone looking for an opportunity to join with other concerned residents and spend some time advancing the cause of activism can search via Global Citizen (globalcitizen365.org). Nearly 50 of Philadelphia’s most prominent and influential companies, institutions, and social justice organizations are sponsoring this year’s day of service – from Independence Blue Cross and Johnson & Johnson, to Drexel and Temple Universities, the Urban Affairs Coalition, Philabundance, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and others. The Global Citizen’s efforts began immediately in the new year on January 3rd, and will continue all month long, concluding on January 31st. Upon registering for an account on the Global Citizen, users can access 164 volunteer opportunities – some point-in-time such as community cleanups and conversations, others ongoing throughout the year. 123 of these opportunities are scheduled to take place specifically on January 17, in various locations across the city. At 10:45am at the National Constitution Center, the I Have a Dream speech will be read.
This year, although the world may seem more challenging and progress further out of reach, the only path forward is one step and one action at a time. Whatever the action, conversation, event or advocacy, cumulative effort bends the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Take part, anywhere and any way, and help move Philadelphia forward. Help continue the work of Dr. King.