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Day of memory, day of service 

MLK holiday is an opportunity to help others in the community

Many of us know that Martin Luther King’s birthday is celebrated in January every year, usually on the third Monday of the month. 

That places it this year on the 15th, the exact date of King’s birth in 1929. But that date also marks the Martin Luther King Day of Service, a nationwide effort to honor King with an official day of service that celebrates the civil rights leader’s life and legacy. It is the only federal holiday designated as such.

The holiday began as a way to commemorate King’s birthday and has since become an opportunity for volunteers nationwide to perform community service in his name. It was King’s goal to fashion a more just and equitable society in his lifetime, one that valued and respected all people regardless of race, religion, ability or background, according to the federal government’s AmeriCorps’ website.

In his own words, King evoked the importance of service: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: “What are you doing for others?” 

There are myriad ways to celebrate King by serving this year, not only around the country, but in South Jersey and the rest of the state. Among local opportunities are a drive to collect and distribute coats to thousands of needy adults and children, a Rutgers’ gala to honor area champions of social justice and packaging cookies for a food pantry.

There are also ways to celebrate virtually statewide, according to jerseycares.org, including making hand-made cards for essential workers and a simulation of homelessness and how it happens.

Although King was assassinated in 1968, the national day of service did not become a holiday until Jan. 20, 1986, according to Time magazine. Observances around the country included a freedom train that ran from San Jose to San Francisco and thousands of marchers in Birmingham, Alabama, where King was once jailed, notes Time. There were also candlelight vigils, readings and church services.

The service day idea didn’t fly everywhere until 2000, with adoption in South Carolina finally making it an observance in all 50 states.

So how can we honor King this year? Here are some ideas from the National Day Calendar:  

  • Learn facts about MLK’s life, including that he was jailed 29 times and started college at the age of 15. 
  • Delve into some of King’s writings, such as “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream: Writing and Speeches That Changed the World.”
  • Acknowledge that King’s work toward equality is still unfinished by learning about issues facing communities of color today.

To find out about volunteer opportunities and other recognition on MLK Day in South Jersey and elsewhere, visit the following websites: 





Again, let’s also heed King’s own words about service to others: 

“Everybody can be great,” he said, “because anybody can serve … You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

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