Honouring Martin Luther King Jr. through service


Monuments are built to those who change the course of history. It is right and fitting that a memorial to Dr Martin Luther King, Jr now stands in the heart of our nation’s Capital. Even as we renew our understanding of Dr King’s legacy by visiting this beautiful monument; we can honour the legacy of Dr King by following his example, by serving and volunteering in our communities.

Dr King called service the “new definition of greatness.” He believed that the work we undertake on behalf of others is the most important work of all. He devoted his life to this notion – advancing equality, social justice and economic opportunity for all Americans. Dr King challenged all of us to do our part to build a more perfect union.

That is why, for nearly two decades, the nation has marked the life of Dr King with a national Day of Service. On Monday, Americans from every state delivered meals, refurbish schools and community centres, collected food and clothing, signed up mentors, supported veterans and military families, and more. Thousands of AmeriCorps and Senior Corps lent a hand to community-based projects. Individuals and groups, of all ages and backgrounds, come together – as Dr King would have wanted – in service.

President Obama and the First Lady took part in this nationwide effort, participating in a service project at a local elementary school in Washington DC. Alongside volunteers from YouthBuild, the Latin American Youth Center, Mission Serves, and the Mission Continues, they lent a hand at a local Big Brothers Big Sisters project, helping to improve the school library.

Together with a large group of volunteers, they cleaned, painted and organized books generously donated to the school by First Book and demonstrated the power of an individual to make an impact.

One of the most inspiring responses to some of our most pressing problems is for individual citizens to take a look around them, identify a need, and roll up their sleeves to help. The President believes that the answers do not come from government alone. He has called on all Americans to participate in our nation’s recovery by volunteering in their communities, by working alongside their neighbours, by making an impact in the lives of others.

We need not be policy experts to make a difference. It does not take comprehensive legislation to provide a decent meal, a place to sleep or tutoring to someone in need. As Dr King said, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”

America’s story is the story of volunteers. Since the early days of our nation, volunteers have helped us meet our greatest challenges: patriots who fought for our founding ideals, women who reached for the ballot, civil rights foot soldiers who risked their lives for equality, first responders who rushed into burning towers, and ordinary citizens who came to the aid of a hurricane-stricken coast.

As we mark Dr King’s life, we can visit his memorial, read his prolific writings, and listen again to his stirring words. But the best way to honour Dr King – the best way to live up to his definition of greatness – is by serving.

Cecilia Muñoz is the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

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